A new survey of electric utility employees found that despite the current political uncertainty regarding renewable energy sources, there is almost unanimous consensus that utilities will continue to move to a cleaner, sustainable and more widely distributed grid in the future.
Utility Dive’s 2017 State of the Electric Utility Survey is based on responses to an online questionnaire sent to Utility Dive readers in January 2017. More than 600 electric utility employees in the United States and Canada participated in the survey. About half of the respondents worked for investor-owned utilities; 32 percent worked for municipal or public power utilities; and 14 percent worked for elective cooperatives.
The top five issues for survey respondents were physical and cyber grid security, distributed energy policy, rate design reform, aging grid infrastructure, and reliable integration of renewable and distributed energy resources.
Key takeaways from the survey include:
Presidential politics not a factor
Most utility executives said they didn’t expect Donald Trump’s presidency to change their future resource generation plans. The survey stated that, “Renewable energy is now cost-competitive with gas generation and cheaper than coal-fired plants across much of the nation, and utility executives are most confident about the growth of utility-scale solar, distributed energy resources, and wind over the next ten years. Because these resources do not generate around the clock, utilities also expect to add significant gas and storage capacity in the years to come.” Nearly half of the respondents said they had a more positive opinion about the future of coal after the election, but only a few expected to ramp up coal capacity at their utilities. Most expected coal power to decline significantly in the future.
Hoping for decarbonization
Most respondents wanted the federal government to institute a carbon tax.
Looking for reform at the state level
The greatest concerns at the state regulatory level were fixed cost recovery, justifying emerging investments and managing distributed resources.
Solar, wind and gas lead the way
Respondents were most confident about the growth of solar power, distributed energy resources, wind energy and natural gas generation over the next 10 years. They expected nuclear power to stagnate or end, depending on the region. In the distributed energy category, rooftop solar, demand-side management and behind-the-meter storage were the most popular initiatives.
Market uncertainty creates angst
Respondents cited fluctuating market conditions, the pressure to lower customer costs, and reliable integration of renewable energy into the grid as their main concerns.
Little desire for traditional regulation
Almost all of the respondents said they would like to see at least some performance-based utility regulation rather than cost-of-service regulation. Time-of-use rates and fixed-charge increases were their favorite solutions to recover costs and compensate for the growth of distributed energy.
Chafing against rules
The vast majority of respondents said they should be allowed to own and rate-base distributed energy resources, even though most of them are currently prohibited from doing so.
Billing for distributed resources
Utility executives said they’re not in favor of location-based rates and other emerging compensation options for distributed resources. Their primary preference is compensation at the avoided cost of generation.
“The industry remains in near consensus that utilities are moving to a cleaner and more distributed grid—and that state and federal officials have an important role to play in facilitating that transition,” the survey concluded.
“Nearly all [respondents] agree that realizing that future requires significant changes to the traditional utility business model that was set up a century ago.”
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