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Utilities hear customer calls for renewables but want regulatory support

Electric customers throughout the U.S., regardless of region, are demanding cleaner energy, and utilities say they are listening while advocating for regulatory support.

"When I think about our future, I think about investing in a safe, reliable and clean grid," Edison International President and CEO Pedro Pizarro said during a panel discussion Nov. 12 at the Edison Electric Institute Financial Conference in San Francisco.

Pizarro on the panel, "The Evolving Business Model," pointed out that 70% of the population in California supports cleaner energy but said the state needs the appropriate regulatory construct and action to make it happen.

"This is a state that has a lot of ambitions, a lot of priorities," he said, adding the objective is to find the appropriate way to balance things out.

Pizarro, who spoke as wildfires raged throughout California and a layer of smoke wafted over San Francisco, added that technology also will play a role in creating a safe, reliable and clean grid.

"One of the biggest problems we have in the industry … is detecting wires down," Pizarro said.

The CEO said the industry is taking "baby steps" and finding ways to collaborate on advancing technology to optimize and modernize the grid.

"I think we are in the early days," Pizarro said.

But while he does not view the utility industry as a leader in the technology space, Pizarro said he is excited about the potential for grid and infrastructure improvements.

CMS Energy Corp. President and CEO Patricia Poppe said the Michigan-headquartered company operates in a "very capable regulatory environment, regulatory construct, enabling critical infrastructure investments."

CMS Energy balances these investments with its goal to reduce the impact on customers' bills and maintain consistent earnings growth.

"What it takes is a level of adaptability but again, just continuous commitment to cost reduction, cost savings, in all aspects of the business," Poppe said.

The company also has a "clean and lean" business strategy.

"We are really embracing, not just in slogan, but our actual business strategy, the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit," Poppe said. "We find that it is absolutely possible to have the cleanest energy we've ever had at the lowest cost for customers."

"We are retiring our coal assets and replacing them with more cost-effective, cleaner energy," Poppe added.

The company's integrated resource plan includes retiring its coal assets over the next 20 years while replacing them with 6,000 MW of solar generation backed by hydroelectric assets.

Demand response and energy efficiency also will be key parts of this strategy.

"One of the things that is becoming so clear to me with our customers, I am talking about Michigan here, our customers want cleaner energy," Poppe said. "As an industry, it's our call. Our customers are asking for it, the climate is benefited by it. Our job is to find out how to say yes."

Poppe said CMS Energy also sees value in technology, such as remote sensors, voltage optimization, battery storage, data analytics and electric vehicles.

"Collectively, we have the potential to work together and adopt technology initiatives in our industry," Poppe said.

She also pointed out the advancements in grid dynamics and smart meters.

"For the first time in our industry's history, we have the potential to optimize both supply and demand," Poppe said. "We can now see who uses what, when, and how best to optimize the flow of energy."

Eversource Energy also sees itself as a "catalyst for clean energy," President and CEO James Judge said.

Judge highlighted the company's offshore wind agreement with Danish offshore wind developer Ørsted A/S, along with the company's commitment to build infrastructure for electric vehicle charging stations and investments in rate-based solar.

"I can see us shifting more into clean energy solutions," Judge said.

Public Service Enterprise Group Inc. also values cleaner energy investments, but Chairman, President and CEO Ralph Izzo said the company is "disappointed in the absence in national leadership" and the policy hurdles facing "core" investments in nuclear generation.

"We are believers that nuclear, certainly existing nuclear, is an essential piece of decarbonization," Izzo said.