The POWER Interview: SEPA’s Julia Hamm Talks Solar Pathways

The Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) is meeting this week in Salt Lake City, Utah, joining with the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) to present North America Smart Energy Week, which this year includes both the long-running Solar Power International gathering along with Energy Storage International.

A big theme this week is the integration of solar with storage. Climate change also is a topic of discussion, as solar and storage advocates tout the benefits of carbon-free power generation and their roles in crafting legislation and regulations designed to help meet clean energy targets.

Julia Hamm, CEO of the Smart Electric Power Alliance. Courtesy: Smart Electric Power Alliance

Julia Hamm, president and CEO of SEPA, sat down with POWER on Sept. 23 at the show to discuss how her group has evolved and to talk about the changing power generation landscape. Hamm has been with the group for 20 years, starting in 1999 when it was known as the Utility PhotoVoltaic Group (UPVG) before becoming the Solar Electric Power Association (version 1.0 of the SEPA acronym) in 2000.

POWER: There is lots of talk about climate change at this year’s event, a topic that obviously spurs lots of debate. Why is your group and SEIA making that more of a focus?

Hamm: “The organization [SEPA] has been around for 27 years, and one really interesting perspective, in my opinion, if you look back, you would never find the words climate change or carbon in our discussions. We were intentionally very cautious about that, because of where the industry was. We were ready to help the industry along, primarily with issues around solar power.

“And now we have utilities and cities and states talking about being carbon-free by 2050, and our board of directors recently adopted a bold new vision for the organization: a carbon-free energy system by 2050. It’s really indicative of the fact that we feel the industry has reached a tipping point. Everyone acknowledges that something has to be done, to help with the challenges, not only today, but two or three steps down the road. We felt it was important to plant our flag and help with these issues of carbon reduction.”

POWER: What are the specific areas your group is tackling?

Hamm: “SEPA has four areas of focus, what we call ‘SEPA Pathways’: Utility Business Models, Regulatory Innovation, Grid Integration, and Transportation Electrification. Now all of our work is focused in those four areas. It’s not technology specific, it’s about leveraging whatever technologies are available to move toward a carbon-free future.

“We have a pretty equal amount of work happening in those four areas. We have launched a Renovate initiative, looking at regulation and innovation, focused on what needs to happen in terms of state regulation, processes, to keep up with innovation, the requirements for new technology standards. We’re not a standards-making body, but we are a convener of stakeholders.”

POWER: Can you talk about the goals of that initiative?

Hamm: “Often [state utility] commissions are not equipped with the right tools and resources to keep up with the education needed, along with the intervenors, to make sure everyone has the current information and understanding as they go through these regulatory processes.

“Part of it is about evaluation. It’s no longer just least-cost, so how do you determine how to prioritize? What tools do commissions need [to craft rules]? A utility may file something with a new technology, but if the commission takes two years to approve it, then the utility might not want that [technology] anymore. We need to get to a regulatory process where you’re not holding back innovation, or those technologies that are best in class.

“It’s about recognizing that there is not a ‘silver bullet’ answer, but a slate of answers, a toolkit of potential solutions. There’s a lot of engagement with this from all stakeholders.”

POWER: You mentioned transportation electrification. There’s a lot of debate about how quickly that could have an impact on the power sector.

Hamm: “On the transportation electrification pathway, one stream of work is really around how do we make sure, as we see this increasing penetration of EVs [electric vehicles], that it can be a distribution asset in the future. With technology standards, and from a rates perspective, utilities can have control of a battery asset. With all pieces of this equation, it’s really important to the electrification of transportation that not just EV drivers are benefiting, but all [power] customers are benefiting.”

POWER: This is certainly changing the utility business model.

Hamm: “With our utility business models’ pathway, we are helping utilities understand how this can be an opportunity. We’re working on how do we need to change the regulatory compact as to how do utilities make money. It’s no longer just a commodity, selling kilowatt hours. We talk to them about what new products and services they can offer, such as what are the opportunities for utilities for behind-the-meter storage, and what is going to resonate with consumers. And you have to look at the different needs for different electricity customers. We go from the big picture all the way down to specific opportunities for utilities.”

POWER: Grid integration continues to be an issue for renewables.

Hamm: “With grid integration, a big part of the focus there for us is how you have to change to plan and operate the system, to incorporate these new resources. Not moving away from the traditional integrated resource plan, but doing it more holistically in actually creating an integrated resource plan. The role that customers play in integrating these resources. It requires utilities to have a much more sophisticated understanding of their customers, so that if you’re thinking about your investments in your integrated resource plan, utilities have to be able with a certain degree of confidence predict customer behavior and make investment decisions based on that.”

POWER: The power generation landscape is rapidly changing. How will your group help utilities and other generators keep up? 

Hamm: “It’s going to require a lot of education, and training, and some new skill sets that didn’t exist before. It will take the collective effort of stakeholders globally to be successful. SEPA’s role in this team effort, articulated through our mission statement, is to facilitate a smart transition to a clean and modern grid.”

 —Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).