What will it take to drive the large-scale transition to solar power? Rachel’s Network explores this question with Julia Hamm, president and CEO of the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) and one of the world’s foremost experts on the nexus between utilities and solar energy. In this Q&A, Julia shares how SEPA helps utilities integrate solar energy into their portfolios, her successes, and inspiration.
Rachel’s Network: What is the biggest challenge we face in bringing solar energy to scale?
Julia Hamm: Historically, the biggest challenge has always been that solar was so much more expensive than other energy resources. The good news is that the economic proposition has changed substantially in recent years. The solar industry has achieved economies of scale that have driven down manufacturing costs; research and development efforts have resulted in higher efficiency solar panels; and new financing mechanisms have resulted in making solar more accessible to home and business owners. Today, in a growing number of states, large-scale solar power can be procured by utilities at or below the cost of other electricity resources and people can choose solar at or below the cost of retail electricity rates.
The biggest challenge remaining is that the US electric grid, the structure that regulates it, and utility business models that were designed for a system of large scale power plants that deliver electricity one way: to customers. Distributed solar, storage, electric vehicles, fuel cells, combined heat and power, and other innovations requires the grid, regulation, and business models to support a system where electricity flows in both directions between the utility and its customers. These changes require substantial overhauls to the status quo.
If you could remove one obstacle that prevents us from implementing solutions to this challenge, what would it be?
One of the most difficult obstacles is the DNA of regulators and the regulatory environment itself. The nature of the beast prevents most regulators from stepping outside the bounds of the traditional business model and operations of the past. While I don’t have a silver bullet solution, it’s been interesting to watch what has been happening in New York. Governor Cuomo appointed Audrey Zibelman to the NY Public Service Commission in June 2013 and named her Chair in September 2013. It was clear from the get-go that she was charged by the Governor to shake things up for New York utilities. The political will of the Governor and the commitment of the PSC Chair has completely changed the nature of conversations between the NY utilities and other electricity stakeholders in the state. People around the country are watching and I suspect we will see other states follow suit in making bold regulatory moves if they are successful.
How have your priorities changed since you started your work with utility companies?
Between the time I started in 1999 and as recently as 2012, so much of my (SEPA’s) effort was spent working with mid-level managers who were dealing with the day-to-day issues related to integrating solar into the grid. Solar wasn’t even on the radar of utility executives, most of whom didn’t believe that solar would be of significance any time soon. But in the past two years, everything has changed. We still have to help those managers, but the majority of our time is spent with utility executives, most of who have moved out of the denial phase and recognize that if solar isn’t seeing significant growth in their service territory today, it will very soon. And so now one of our top priorities is helping utility executives successfully incorporate solar into their business and grid operations.
What are you most proud of in your work?
Each year we take a group of executives abroad to study a solar market that has progressed faster than the U.S. market to see what learning can be applied domestically. As a result of our first mission to Germany in 2008, an executive from Gainesville Regional Utilities decided that his municipal utility should develop and execute a feed-in tariff program – the first in the U.S. As a tip of the hat to our role, he named the contract each participant had to sign the Solar Energy Purchase Agreement (SEPA) so that an element of the program would share its acronym with the organization that was quietly behind its beginnings.
It wasn’t until the Gainesville program was rolled out successfully that municipal utilities around the U.S. became comfortable with this program approach and began to roll out similar FIT programs. Very few people in the industry know that without us, hundreds of megawatts of distributed generation through these programs would not have happened. We have other results I’m proud of from this international fact-finding mission and other programs we run, but this one is a favorite.
What woman environmentalist inspires you? Why?
Dr. Sylvia A. Earle, oceanographer and explorer. Formerly chief scientist of NOAA, she is the founder of Deep Ocean Exploration and Research, Inc., founder of Mission Blue and SEAlliance, and chair of the Advisory Councils of the Harte Research Institute and the Ocean in Google Earth. I had the opportunity of a lifetime to explore the Great Barrier Reef on a scuba diving trip about ten years ago, and since then I’ve been fascinated with everything in the ocean. Dr. Earle’s lifelong commitment to protecting this amazing underwater world inspires me, and I love that she has tackled the issue from so many angles including government, NGO and for-profit endeavors.