The 21st Mid-C Seminar: A look at the future of northwest power markets

The 21st Mid-C Seminar offered a number of insights into the state of utilities in the Northwest.

Utility-level solar use was one of the agenda items at the Mid-C Seminar.

Sapere consultants Steve Lewis and Carol Loughlin attended the 21st Mid-C Seminar in Wenatchee, Washington.

Along the banks of the mighty Columbia River, a wide variety of professionals gathered to discuss the future of the power industry. Here's a look at some of the standout topics from the conference:

Northwest Capacity

Several speakers noted the potential for shortfalls in capacity as a result of upcoming coal unit retirements. Steve Wright, General Manager of the Chelan County Public Utility District, raised the issue in his keynote address, focusing on reliability implications.

Wright posits that the current Northwest energy markets do not properly support capacity investments and that a capacity market is needed to provide proper financial incentives and support a reliable grid. Of course, the real underlying question is who should pay (or be made to pay?) into the capacity markets for reliability.   

Southwest Power Pool

A presentation by Malcolm McLellan, of Van Ness Feldman, described the Mountain West Transmission Group's  collaboration with the Southwest Power Pool to facilitate a regional transmission organization within their area of WECC. If successful, the new RTO could potentially compete with the California Independent System Operator. Information about the Mountain West Transmission Group Initiative can be found here: https://www.wapa.gov/About/keytopics/Pages/Mountain-West-Transmission-Group.aspx.

NERC regulations and the solar industry

Rich Bauer, of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, offered a presentation focused on the development of utility-scale solar and related challenges faced by the utility industry.
Challenges include recent unexpected solar generation trips following faults on the grid.  NERC's investigation revealed that various differences in terminology between the solar generators and reliability transmission providers contributes to these unexpected events. Efforts are underway to ensure consistent use of terminology and to address overall reliability concerns in this important and growing part of the industry.

More to discuss

A couple of issues we think are especially relevant to the Northwest power industry were not addressed by conference speakers. Two items we're following closely are:

1. Microsoft bypasses local utility to purchase energy

Microsoft recently reached an agreement with the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission to bypass the local utility, Puget Sound Energy, for electricity service to its headquarters in Redmond, WA. The deal was contingent on Microsoft agreeing to purchase renewable and carbon neutral energy at a higher percentage than is otherwise required by the state's renewable portfolio standard.

This development could indicate the potential for other businesses and organizations to follow a similar path if they're willing to make the same type of concessions related to renewable and carbon neutral energy purchases. A discussion of the implications for utilities and their procurement planning processes would have been a very welcome topic at the Mid-C Seminar.

2. The power of blockchain

While blockchain has existed for some time and is widely used in applications like digital currency, it's only now emerging into the wider world of business. The security it provides in terms of transactional record-keeping is powerful, and we've investigated blockchain due to its ability to track commodities like energy.

Blockchain could have a major impact on trade-tracking at the Mid-C Hub and could also influence the scheduling of power, like e-tagging, and transmission monitoring. The technology's potential impact may not be immediately evident, but a discussion about its possible energy-related applications would have fit in with the Seminar's general focus on the future of the industry.

This year's Mid-C Seminar was an interesting and multifaceted look at the regional power industry. While there were a few more topics we would have liked to see on the agenda, it provided many strong points of discussion, a good learning opportunity, and a great networking event.