Our Energy and Utilities team headed to Boston to attend RE+ Northeast. Here are some insights from the event.
RE+ Northeast is one of the largest forums for professionals in the renewable energy and storage industry to explore new solutions, technologies, policy initiatives and other market trends.
Held in Boston with host utility National Grid, this year’s event attracted over 3,000 attendees for two days of sessions and networking. Mike Murphy and I were excited to attend the panels and walk the exhibit hall floor to learn more about the latest developments.
Excitement is Growing for IRA
There was a great deal of excitement in the air at this year’s RE+ Northeast, and the hot topic was the historic Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). According to a SEIA analysis, the IRA will double the solar and storage workforce over the next decade. It will also create up to $600 billion in new capital investment and produce 525-550 GW of new clean power.
With such rapid growth, both challenges and opportunities arise, especially as new and existing companies scale rapidly to achieve the goals set out by this legislation. RE+ Northeast featured panelists from across the industry who spoke on these topics and what their organizations were doing to meet growing needs.
Scaling and Grid Modernization Present New Challenges
With the IRA and other initiatives, a vision and investment exist in achieving sustainability goals. However, one concern reiterated throughout the event was speed and scaling. The conference noted the U.S. will need to increase renewable energy deployment by at least two to three times from current levels to meet already established decarbonization goals. Achieving these goals will take significant infrastructure build-out, technology investment and workforce development.
One area, in particular, the presenters highlighted was the need for extensive grid modernization. In one presentation, a panelist noted there is no transition without transmission, underpinning the need for significant investment in grid modernization as a core component of the decarbonization discussion.
On the policy side, in briefings from each state, we learned what each is doing to meet these goals through incentive programs, procurement standards, and legislation and policy. However, significant barriers exist, including slow timelines for project approvals and development, business structures not built for resiliency in times of rapid growth, a lack of state and local communication and cooperation, and varying regulatory standards.
Despite these challenges, the benefits of modernization are substantial and will enable a more reliable and sustainable energy future.
Interconnectedness Presents Real Challenges
Integrating renewable energy into the existing power grid presents challenges due to numerous factors, including intermittency, grid capacity or load balancing, the rapid shift to electrification and more. The need for established interconnection standards was a topic in multiple panels, as was the need to reduce regulatory barriers.
On the utility side, companies will require strong software tools to support real-time monitoring, data analysis and predictive analytics, and control of energy assets through energy management systems. Multiple speakers noted their timeline for innovation has accelerated, and companies need to address a more agile approach to infrastructure development than traditional industry practices.
On the customer side, understanding energy usage will be critical, with new and previously underused programs, such as time-of-use pricing, becoming more critical.
Customer Adoption and Understanding
From purchasing electric vehicles (EVs), whose batteries can contribute back to the grid, to forming community solar initiatives, more than ever, the customer will have the power to contribute to the energy grid. To prepare for this energy future, utilities and energy companies must prepare to invest in providing additional customer-facing technologies and communication strategies.
Providing customers with digital tools to understand their energy blend will also be part of the need. Examples of digital customer tools include cost-savings calculators, interactive usage monitoring tools, smart home integration for household energy management, and personalized rate or program recommendations.
However, technology alone will not ensure customer understanding and adoption. Speakers noted that as efforts expand, companies must empower customers to understand the impact and opportunities sustainable energy solutions offer through community outreach and education. This education will serve to both increase adoption, as well as confront any potential public concerns or misconceptions about the renewable energy transition.
Mark Schottinger, President of Solar Landscape (a Centric client), highlighted that they built their business around meaningful community solar projects, which has led to job training, the development of community gardens, a focus on low to moderate income customer outreach, and the development of a green ambassador program for high school students.
Ensuring an Equitable Energy Future
Multiple sessions highlighted the critical importance of ensuring a just and equitable energy future. With the speed at which the industry must scale, these speakers challenged the audience to look at how their efforts can support all communities to ensure no one is left behind.
Topics included policy development, workforce development, incentive programs and community engagement. Exciting projects, such as the Power Corps program in Philadelphia, can serve as a model for how this important work can catalyze community development. The conference shared resources, such as the Energy Equity Framework by the Energy Equity Project, to provide actionable tools organizations can use.
At this year’s RE+ Northeast event, the sense that we are at a turning point in the energy transition was strong. Mike even noted the level of passion and interest in solving the renewable energy situation in the context of each organization’s prevue was incredibly high – the highest he’s seen in over 25 years in the industry.
However, the road ahead will not be without bumps, as this year’s event highlighted. There are still challenges you may experience while trying to scale. Partnering with a vendor is a good place to start to make sure you can meet market demands at speed and scale. Here are just a few common scenarios you may encounter that a partner can help you with:
- You are trying to market and sell to new commercial solar customers but are managing leads in a spreadsheet or via email.
- Your employees are flagging that they spend a lot of time with manual processes, such as recording development site inspections.
- Your new community solar customers are frequently calling or emailing your customer service team because they lack access to self-service tools.
- Your IT budget and vendor management have grown out of hand as you’ve added new systems without a holistic governance strategy.
The good news is that you can easily overcome these challenges with the right solutions in place. Investments in enhanced and secure IT environments, a focus on providing engaging end-user digital experiences, and building strong business processes designed to scale will be necessary for all organizations in this sector.