Energy Transition

At its most basic, the energy transition underway represents the collision of two vastly different business models – risk-averse, regulated utilities versus competitive, market-driven solar companies – each with very disparate abilities to adapt quickly to change. At times, they appear to be moving away from each other at warp speed even as fast-evolving technologies in the energy industry are creating an environment where cooperation and collaboration are increasingly vital.

The Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) has made collaboration a core principle of its work, helping utilities integrate large-scale solar and other distributed energy technologies onto the grid in ways that benefit all stakeholders – utilities, the solar industry and customers. We believe it is one of the key trends that will continue to drive change in the industry. None of which means it is easy. Getting the right people to the table, encouraging open communication that can help build trust and then working through points of difference to find practical solutions require time, commitment and, occasionally, a robust sense of humor.

Two of SEPA’s recent projects – facilitating a stakeholder group for Tennessee Valley Authority and managing a working group for the Department of Energy’s Solar Market Pathways program – demonstrate the opportunities and challenges of such cross-industry collaboration. The success of these projects was based on bringing together a range of participants committed to keeping their minds open and listening to thoughts and opinions possibly at odds with their own.

Providing Structure

But having a solid process is also critical. SEPA staff has developed some practical strategies to provide structure for these groups and help work through the rough spots. They are:

1. Figure out who needs to be included – While it may seem instinctual to have top decision-makers at the table, depending on the issue at hand it may be more important to have the policy wonks or technical people who can talk about the nuts and bolts or complexities of a topic. For a truly representative range of stakeholders with a cross-section of views, this kind of group should include about 12-15 people, with a maximum of 20. Larger groups might even become unwieldy and counterproductive.

You also need an effective and neutral third-party facilitator – someone who is knowledgeable on the issues involved but has no financial or policy interest in the outcome.

2. Clearly articulate the end-goal and process upfront – Participants need to be keenly focused on why the group has been brought together – for example, to design a pilot program – and how they will be collaborating. If multiple meetings are envisioned, use the first meetings to have group members define their vision for a successful outcome. What is the group trying to accomplish, and what are the guiding principles that will help it achieve that goal? Keeping these core points at hand will keep the group focused at times of disagreement or if the process veers off track. 

If potential topics are known in advance, then put them on the table. Getting everyone involved on the same page with the process can lead to more effective meetings.

3. Defuse and work through disagreements – You need a variety of approaches here, depending on the issues and people involved: 

    • Hot button issues: Some topics can be expected to trigger strong disagreements – fixed charges for solar customers, for example. But depending on context, such issues may be central or tangential. Figure out whether it’s really something you must address for a successful outcome.
    • Potential disruptors: If someone is expressing what appears to be a strongly entrenched position, encourage others with more neutral views to talk, rather than someone with an equally entrenched but opposite view. Have the participants provide background and context for their views to help others understand them. Also, be sure to build in regular breaks and use them for one-on-one talks with individuals with strong views. Let them vent there, rather than during the group process.
    • New options: What happens when participants can’t find a middle ground? A knowledgeable but neutral facilitator can play a critical role by helping the group move away from polarized choices and explore new or innovative alternatives.

Ongoing collaboration will foster the shifts in thinking and business models that are central to industry transformation. Utilities must focus on creating a long-term, sustainable marketplace for customers looking to adopt solar and other distributed technologies. They also must communicate clearly and effectively the incremental changes needed so that the marketplace can grow and thrive. Solar developers, on the other hand, must recognize the complexities of the distribution system and the time utilities need to ensure that ramping up of distributed generation meets safety and reliability standards. 

All sides must be ready to talk about interim steps that can be leveraged for long-term solutions. Certainly, the market is large enough to allow a wide variety of players – utilities, customers, developers and others – to invest in the expansion of distributed energy technologies and provide a variety of options for consumers. 

JOHN STERLING is senior director of research and advisory services for the Solar Electric Power Association. He can be reached at [email protected] For information on SEPA, visit 

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