The Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) Utility Conference is the one event we hold each year that is closed to journalists and open only to current utility personnel — and a small group of solar and other distributed energy technology firms. The intent is to allow open and frank conversations about the disruptions and transitions now occurring within the industry, and the complex, sensitive issues arising from these changes.
As SEPA’s communications manager, I’ve been going to this annual meeting — formerly called the Utility Solar Conference — since 2014, and over that time, what utilities have been talking about behind those closed doors has changed significantly.
In 2014, I remember, the focus was all about solar — the technological and operational challenges of procurement, interconnection and, yes, net metering. Many people were still figuring out how to do solar — the nuts-and-bolts stuff — and the mood, while generally positive, was laced with the cautious aversion to risk characteristic of utilities’ approach to change.
This year — well, let’s start with breakfast on the first morning of the event, held April 24-26 in Tucson. As one tends to do at such industry confabs, I sat down with someone I didn’t know — Harry Emerson, Director of Marketing at Oklahoma Gas & Electric (OG&E) — and found out all about his utility’s highly successful community solar and smart thermostat programs.