|Column: Grid Modernization – Energizing Wisconsin Forward
By Ellen Nowak, Chairperson of the Public Service Commission of WisconsinLast month I had the opportunity to speak at a Customers First! Power Dialogue event about what Wisconsin is doing in the area of “grid modernization.” Talking about a topic that doesn’t have a universal definition can be a challenge, but there are some universal themes in the context of grid modernization. Regardless of the precise definition used, most agree that grid modernization’s core tenets revolve around the convergence of evolving customer needs and expectations, combined with the emergence of new technologies in the energy sector.Before we embark on where we should go, it makes sense to take stock of where we’ve been. The good news is that Wisconsin has been active in many facets of grid modernization for years. One of the earliest examples is the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin’s (PSCW) authorization of Wisconsin Power & Light’s mandatory time-of-day rate tariffs in November 1976. In the past five years alone, the PSCW has approved innovative programs and tariffs for 28 different electric utilities. These include programs and tariffs related to electric vehicles, community solar projects, market based rate designs, new load market pricing rate designs, distributed energy resources special tariffs, time of use rates, fixed bills, and a renewable energy rider. Wisconsin utilities are also upgrading their customer information systems and installing advanced metering infrastructure to allow for the implementation of these new tariffs, as well as provide critically important information for customers to make energy usage decisions. A key statistic that demonstrates these infrastructure investments is related to the penetration of advanced meters to residential customers: of the 2.6 million residential electric customers in Wisconsin, 78% now have meters than can be read remotely, and approximately 39% of residential customers have meters that have two-way communication capabilities. These advanced meters provide an improved flow of information between the utility and its customers, potentially allowing for earlier outage detection and quicker restoration of service, as well as providing customers with real-time energy usage information to make better informed usage decisions.So where do we go from here? The progress that has been made has not been achieved alone, but through the collaboration of utilities, stakeholders representing ratepayers and other interests, as well as the PSCW. Our ability to work cooperatively on these topics as an entire industry in a regulated environment is the envy of many other states. It makes sense to take advantage of this collaborative spirit and continue to identify issues to work on together. In this vein, the PSCW surveyed a broad array of stakeholders to prioritize grid modernization issues for Wisconsin. Earlier this fall, the PSCW conducted a survey of the utilities and stakeholders who work most closely together on grid modernization issues, including representatives from the five largest investor owned utilities, municipal utilities, customer advocates, industrial customers, trade associations, cooperatives, and environmental groups.The survey results showed that the top five priorities for all stakeholders (in order of priority) are:
1) interconnection of customer-owned distributed energy resources;
2) identification of customers’ changing expectations, preferences, and behaviors;
3) uses and benefits of advanced meters;
4) maintaining the safety and reliability of the existing distribution system; and
5) increased electrification.Given these results, the next step is to plot a course for the PSCW to cultivate conversations around the highest priority grid modernization topics for Wisconsin’s stakeholders. The survey has provided us with sufficient data to begin these positive conversations among stakeholders. Our plan is to work with Customers First! and other organizations to hold meetings and informational sessions on these topics over the next several months. The goal is to get utilities, stakeholders and the PSCW in a room together to find ways to take advantage of opportunities and identify solutions to common problems outside of contested proceedings. We can learn from each other, informally kick around proposals, share ideas, and build on our positive working relationships, in order to be ready to address future challenges as they emerge. We aren’t starting this process with predetermined outcomes. Instead, the outcomes should be developed by utilities and stakeholders working together in this collaborative environment outside of what can sometimes be a contentious contested case environment. Constructive dialogue and engagement from all stakeholders will be key to success.I would like to thank the Customers First! Coalition for its continued support of the Commission’s grid modernization efforts. Together, we need to remain focused on what our state’s utility customers need from their utilities now and in the future so that Wisconsin’s families and businesses will not only have basic needs met, but can grow and thrive. I look forward to meeting with many of you in the coming months as we discuss how to keep Wisconsin’s electric grid safe, reliable, affordable, and focused on the needs of Wisconsin’s utility customers.