Where do you go to develop a framework for a comprehensive community energy strategy that has never been done before in the United States? Answer: the Rocky Mountain Institute’s annual e-LAB ACCELERATOR program, A Boot Camp for Electricity Innovation. The four-day intensive program was held at the Sundance Resort, founded by Robert Redford in 1969 in Sundance, Utah. I was one of seven team members from Western North Carolina who participated April 24-27.
Only 13 projects were selected for this year’s program, and the WNC Energy Innovation Team project was one of those few accepted.
A prime reason the WNC energy project was chosen was its collaborative community approach to addressing complex energy challenges that included a utility provider, in our case, Duke Energy. Among the factors that led to the collaborative approach were: a controversial, legislatively fast-tracked “modernization plan” to replace the Lake Julian coal-fired system with natural gas turbines; the threat of an additional natural gas turbine for projected “peak power” demands in the future; community interest in and objections to the plan; the N.C. Utility Commission’s orders to report annually on the modernization efforts; and the newly formed WNC Energy Innovation Task Force.
The WNC Energy Innovation Team comprised both Asheville and Buncombe community representatives and representatives from Duke Energy. Brownie Newman, vice chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners; Julie Mayfield, co-director of MountainTrue and recently elected to Asheville City Council; and Cathy Ball, the city’s executive director of Planning and Multimodal Transportation and were joined by Duke Energy’s representatives, including Robert Sipes, general manager of the Duke Energy West Zone; John Landy, distributed energy specialist; and Jason Walls, community relations and communications manager.
Our Energy Innovation Team arrived at three primary approaches. First, to provide increased and easier access to existing and new energy efficiency and demand-side management programs that initially target peak demand issues. The peak energy demand for WNC comes regularly, however infrequently, on the coldest days of the winter from 5-9 a.m. Second, to make deliberate investments by Duke Energy and the community in distributed energy resources in a range of emerging technologies such as solar energy and utility scale energy storage, customer energy storage, grid modernization and greater efficiency in transmission. Finally, engage the community and energy customers to help us all understand the role we play in creating the best energy future and avoiding the peaker plant.
What matters more are concrete strategies to achieve those ends.
For the first objective, an outline of strategies included: initially focus on increasing the residential and business sector’s participation in Duke’s Energy Wise program; increase access and participation in the Energy House Call program; increase awareness of and participation in the New Homes Construction programs; coordinate and promote community efforts such as the WNC Green Building Council’s Green Gauge program; promote and create new low-income weatherization programs; increase the effectiveness and coordination of existing Home Energy Improvement programs with others available; expand the adoption of LED lighting; link heating assistance programs with energy efficiency/demand-side management programs (heating assistance needs are directly related to peak demand challenges); create community energy and sustainability related competitions and collaborate, coordinate and support faith-based organization efforts at weatherization and energy efficiency.
For the second objective, we outlined short- and long-term strategies for energy storage, solar energy expansion and other technologies. For energy storage, Duke Energy has committed to installing at least 5 megawatts of utility scale energy storage, with a strong likelihood of more capacity in the near future. Concurrently, the EITF effort would include developing energy storage options for residential, commercial and industrial customers. Duke Energy has committed to at least 15 megawatts of new utility owned solar energy. This is a good start, however the region has the potential for much more, such as municipal solar installations, community solar projects and residential solar opportunities. Barriers to expanding clean energy are not technical issues or economics, but rather political and regulatory.
For the third objective, our primary strategy is to solicit input from all sectors of the community in an open process with the newly formed EITF.
Success will not be achieved by mandates, but by community collaboration and cooperation. To this end, our team understood that creating community awareness and education programs will educate and inform the public on the challenges and options for us all.
These informational programs are planned to be at the neighborhood level to stimulate ideas and dialogue, as well as information to be available at websites and related social media.