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Engagement, Questions, and Focused Activities Mark Initial Comprehensive Planning Task Force Workshop

By Regina L. Davis and Danielle Sass Byrnett

The Task Force on Comprehensive Electricity Planning established by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the National Association of State Energy Officials (NASEO) convened its first workshop with commissioners and state energy officials representing the 16 participating states. The April meeting was the first of four workshops planned for 2019 and 2020: two for task force members and two that will include key stakeholders.


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Emerging technologies, decreasing costs, consumer preferences, new energy service providers, and state and local efforts are driving significant growth in distributed energy resources (DERs) such as solar, storage, energy efficiency, demand management, and microgrids. Coming apace with this growth is increased demand for regulatory and policy innovation, along with more emphasis on planning to overcome system complexities and avoid unnecessary costs associated with investing in the grid.

“Effective infrastructure planning and investment are essential in Michigan, given our system needs and the rapidly changing energy landscape,” said task force member and Michigan Public Service Commission Chair Sally Talberg. “The task force provides access to experts, peer exchange, and facilitated discussions to help us think through the integration of planning processes for electric generation, transmission, and distribution. This integration will help us better serve 10 million Michiganders with more cost-effective, reliable solutions.”

With better alignment of distribution and resource planning, state public utility commissions and energy offices are expecting to unlock the ability to:

  • Improve grid reliability and resilience
  • Optimize use of new and existing distributed and centralized energy resources
  • Avoid unnecessary costs to ratepayers
  • Support state policy priorities
  • Increase the transparency of grid-related investment decisions

The facilitated workshops help realize the task force goal of providing a forum to develop state-led pathways toward a more resilient, efficient, and affordable grid, as envisioned by NARUC President Nick Wagner and NASEO Board Chair Andrew McAllister, when they instituted the task force.

“This is an excellent platform for us to articulate a vision for future planning, set goals for better-aligned planning approaches, and establish principles to guide that alignment. These workshops will enable us to begin defining the building blocks of new approaches and challenges that could impede change,” said McAllister.

Doing the Work

At the April workshop, task force members learned more about other states’ electricity profiles, organizational responsibilities, policy goals, and planning processes, which were featured in a state summary packet now publicly available. Unstructured conversations and informal dialogues provided opportunities for information exchanges. For example, participants shared their experiences in addressing common questions related to grid planning and resilience, forecasting, evaluating grid modernization investments, organizational structures, DERs in rural areas, local government interactions, and more.

But mostly, the task force members rolled up their sleeves and dug in to the work. They were asked to explore the challenge(s) they are facing, visualize and consider various scenarios of successful alignment of planning processes, and identify a range of obstacles and opportunities along the path to improving the state of the art in planning. An open, collegial environment and multiple facilitated exercises enabled active engagement among the participants, as well as very productive working sessions. In just two-and-a-half days, the members created:

  1. A comprehensive list of trends/drivers of change that inspire task force activity;
  2. Sets of draft guiding principles for aligning planning processes; and
  3. Initial diagrams breaking down the major steps within planning processes, and specific opportunities for better integration.

“This first workshop was, by all accounts a very successful first step,” said Wagner.  “It provided an opportunity for the members to gain a better understanding of current planning approaches across participating states. Also, they were able to connect on many levels: as individuals, as members of a state team, and as essential contributors to a multi-state cohort team.”

“States attending the first workshop demonstrated a commitment to engage on the critical planning matters, assessing new regulatory and policy pathways for aligned electricity planning,” said task force co-chair Laura Nelson, PhD, of the Utah Governor’s Office of Energy Development.

“All of the state teams (and the cohorts into which they have been sorted) demonstrated substantive progress, measured by the emergence of shared descriptions of current circumstances and desired outcomes, as well as the very evident collegiality that is forming between the states,” said co-chair Jeffrey Ackermann, chair of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.

The cohorts comprise three to four states each and provide an effective way to organize team-based work around a variety of regulatory, policy, and market contexts. The teams include vertically integrated states outside of regional markets, vertically integrated states within regional markets, and fully restructured states. Across these teams, various combinations of planning processes are being examined for specific opportunities to improve alignment: 1) distribution, resource, and transmission planning; 2) distribution and resource planning; and 3) distribution planning with other planning and programming efforts at the state level, such as energy efficiency and electric vehicles.

“The workshop’s format promoted this exchange of ideas on planning issues. Conversations on related topics over meals and breaks are already helping me think through how to approach issues in Michigan,” said Talberg.

Looking Ahead

At the next workshop, planned for October 2019 with task force members and key stakeholders, participants will: 1) focus on refining their articulated visions, compare those to the status quo, and contemplate changes needed; 2) consider systemic impacts of suggested changes; and 3) identify barriers and opportunities to change current practices.

In the interim, the task force will host a series of conference calls with participants, open webinars for all members of the community, and plan a session for NARUC’s Summer Policy Summit.

At the end of all four workshops, the innovations for planning alignment developed by the cohorts will be published, outlining a set of steps that can be applied for improved decision making. When released, the roadmaps may be adapted and used by all states, not just those of task force participants.


Post Workshop Q&A

We asked task force co-chairs Jeffrey Ackermann, chair of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, and Laura Nelson, PhD, of the Utah Governor’s Office of Energy Development, for their thoughts after the initial workshop. 

AckermanJeffrey Ackermann

Laura NelsonLaura Nelson

As a task force co-chair, how would you describe the interaction among the state representatives?

JA: The NARUC and NASEO staff recruited a wonderfully diverse set of commissioners and energy office staff/officials, representing 16 states. The first thought that came to my mind is “How will such a diverse group interact effectively?” The range of experience with planning (distribution systems, in particular) is enormous. Yet, those further down the road of experience are humble and gracious in their sharing, and those just starting the journey came eager to learn.

LN: States have different regulatory and policy structures, which in many respects can drive certain energy solutions.  This task force affords an opportunity to share best practices for energy system planning and create pathways for expanding future planning to cover a broader spectrum of resource options. States attending the first workshop demonstrated a commitment to engage on the critical planning matters, assessing new regulatory and policy pathways for aligned electricity planning. 

Did you have any expectations going into the first workshop? If so, were those expectations met/exceeded?

JA: As a co-chair and representing a state just beginning to explore distribution system planning (and how it interrelates with regulatory oversight of other planning functions), my personal expectations related to the process (“How can this many people be effectively facilitated through the work?”), to the outcomes (“How to simultaneously convene a state team, establish a shared purpose and make meaningful steps forward?”)

In large part due to the work done by staff and partners in advance of the workshop, my expectations were exceeded. All of the state teams (and the cohorts into which they have been sorted) demonstrated substantive progress, measured by the emergence of shared descriptions of current circumstances and desired outcomes, as well as the very evident collegiality that is forming between the states.

LN: Yes.  Energy access and affordability are critical to overall economic success. An expectation for this task force is that we expand how we look at and plan for energy solutions across the grid to provide for a resilient affordable energy future.  This first meeting successfully advanced this discussion, incorporating defined principles for each state, a better understanding of current resource planning approaches, and initiating the dialogue for integrating space for more comprehensive planning that considers distribution level assets. 

Why should states that do not have representatives pay attention to or feel invested in the work of the task force?

JA: Part of my opening welcome/remarks to the participants was an acknowledgement that many other states are watching over our collective shoulders, seeking timely, substantial and relevant information that can be readily applied to their states. Thus, our work as states and cohorts, when identifying our current situations and envisioning pathways forward for developing and integrating transmission, resource and distribution system planning, must be given our highest priority because of the expectations upon us. Further, while bringing the specific perspectives of our states to the process, the cross-section of circumstances and experiences represented in the 16 states provides a strong likelihood that the outcomes will be relevant to all NARUC and NASEO members.

LN: Innovative technologies, along with changing consumer preferences, are leading to a rapidly changing electric grid. Meeting the demands for future resilience can be guided through both innovative regulatory and policy solutions. The conversation created through this task force is assisting us in creating a roadmap for states to advance solutions to promote best outcomes for customers as we plan for the evolving energy landscape. All states will be able to benefit from the conversation and roadmaps created from this process, as it can inform on what approaches could be effective, given specific electricity markets, regulations, policies, and resources.

What are you looking forward to at the October workshop?

JA: Group processes are often described as undergoing “Forming, Storming and Norming.”  In April, a necessary portion of our energy went into giving shape to our process and cohorts (“forming”), and beginning to breathe life into the process (“storming”). As we reconvene in October, this will start to become more familiar to each of us (“norming”), thus providing a foundation for action and outcomes (Transforming!).

LN: At our first meeting, we gained a deeper understanding of current resource planning approaches.  We launched a conversation within our states and cohorts on how we might evolve these planning efforts. Cohorts had an opportunity to share and discuss further with the full slate of attendees. This dialogue was valuable for considering our next steps in advancing our conversation regarding holistic planning to maintain system flexibility as we experience a changing generation mix. I am looking forward to continuing to improve our understanding of opportunities for expanded system planning at the next meeting and further refining concepts for our “roadmap.”

—Regina L. Davis