PS-Conference-CenterIt’s the fifth Southern California Energy Summit, produced by Burke Rix Communications, and hosted by the Coachella Valley Association of Governments and the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership. The perfect setting, the sunken Palm Springs Convention Center, its sloping roof and great glass windows opening to the San Jacinto mountains. There’s a buzz in the exhibit hall.

Tom Kirk, Executive Director of CVAG opens the conference and brings the Mayor of Palm Springs, Steve Pougnet, to the stage. Pougnet’s city has achieved great sustainability gains, but he chooses not to list Palm Springs’ accomplishments, but instead to spur action in sustainability. “Give yourself a goal, make that your cause. When you come back next year, ask yourself, what have you actually done?”

Throughout the day are megatrends. This group, as well as our distinguished policymakers, have huge aspirations for renewables. There is a clear recognition that the industry is changing, self-generation is stripping utility loads as is efficiency. Meanwhile the “elephant in the room” is the price of natural gas. It is now powering 62% of California’s electricity appetite.

The industry is in a tremendous state of change: The poles and wires business is rapidly becoming two-directional, decentralized, and democratized. With $2 billion spent on smart meters in California – and virtually full deployment – “it’s time to use them.” Then there’s the deployment of EVs and greater levels of electric mass transportation. Will the ISO be necessary in years to come if preferred resources, including storage, operate within microgrids?

Change is a generous descriptor. Nationally, the electric utility industry needs $2 trillion in infrastructure upgrades, just as there are flat electric sales and mitigating greenhouse gases is the order of the day. And the industry continues to suffer from its longstanding utility orientation of selling a commodity, not services.

Jonathan Weisgall of MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company added to this background. There will be 35 – 50 GW of coal-fired capacity shutting down in next five years. Good news: In the primary state in which he operates, Iowa, wind is a cost-effective resource. His utility has not had a rate increase in 18 years. In fact, he reported, the new wind generation will result in rate decrease. Wind is slated to supply 39% of Iowa’s annual electricity production by 2015.

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