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GIS and Its Role in the Solar Evolution: Exclusive Interview with Curran McBride of Penn State

Curran McBride

The modern utility industry is embracing the possibility of new technology and the ability that data and smart technology affords it. This continued evolution towards the digital utility is particularly exciting when it comes to geographic information systems (GIS) and what it can mean for energy providers, but the possibilities offered by GIS and the solutions for which utilities are already using GIS is a bit of a niche topic. The leaders pushing for utilities to embrace these new technological capabilities find themselves not just as advocates, but innovators of and educators on the technology.

As Energy Central’s recent special issue on GIS demonstrated, though, the enthusiasm in this field is growing and the possibilities are growing. One of the leaders who is pushing to make sure utilities continue to embrace the future of GIS is Curran McBride, a solar energy guru at Penn State University. Continuing towards the goals of spreading the word about GIS in the utility space, Curran was generous enough to take the time to speak with Energy Central about everything GIS and energy, specifically how solar could be utilized to advance the solar energy market. So, please take some time to read some of these great insights into the GIS, solar, and utility industries:

 Matt Chester: You’ve conducted research into how GIS can upend the existing utility model, and specifically how such GIS tools can hasten the growth of the renewable energy market. What inspired you initially to see how GIS could be used for renewable energy and how did you go about first making that connection?

Curran McBride: In 2016 I was working for an IT firm and found myself assigned to a contract GIS analyst position at a large electrical utility in the Pacific Northwest. The utility had recently deployed an enterprise GIS across the organization, and the creative opportunities were wide-open to leverage the robust capabilities a GIS provides. Being wired in such a way that prevents me from understanding the logic or rationale for continuing to use fossil fuels to power cities given the zero-emission technologies currently operational around the world, I soon wondered to myself how much solar it would take to power all of the utility’s service territory. I soon thereafter came across an article which served as a catalyst for my solar research.

The article depicted the reasons behind the Las Vegas solar industry market collapsing in 2015. It involved the governor, the Public Utilities Commission, and the state’s electrical monopoly in a corrupt scheme that incentivized the solar market boom. In essence, you had all of these customers egged on by the government to spend $20,000 to $40,000 to install solar with the idea that the system would not only be great for the environment, but also pay for itself in a set amount of time from net-metering, eventually saving the homeowner substantial amounts of money down the road from a significantly reduced utility bill. The problem was that once solar was being installed at a high tempo across the valley, there was a conscious decision to abruptly remove the monetary incentives given to the public for putting solar on their property.

The electrical monopoly decided to increase the monthly charges for solar owners over 300%, while at the same time reducing the rate that they would be paying customers for their surplus solar energy by roughly two-thirds. In the end, Nevada now had a law in place crafted by industry insiders from the monopoly, PUC, and the governor that forced solar customers into having to pay substantially more per month to help cover the costs of maintaining the grid. At the same time the utility would now be buying the surplus electricity generated from those solar customers at wholesale prices around $0.04 per kilowatthour (kWh), and then re-selling it at market value for about $0.13 per kWh for a massive profit.

After reading about the corrupt reasons for the solar market collapsing in Las Vegas in 2015 and 2016, I began formulating ideas about measuring just how much solar it would take to power an entire city. I realized I had access to the historical energy use data down to individual meters for the entire service territory, and I began to put the puzzle pieces of the project into place. As the electrical utility I worked for was also a monopoly, I became interested in the utility business model as well and how it could possibly become viable for the utility to deploy solar across the city while still making a reasonable profit for the shareholders. One possible solution materialized in my mind, which I’ll describe later. While being quite simple in theory, it is one that would obviously require a tremendous amount of buy-in by many stakeholders.

 

MC: In your research paper, you propose that using GIS to map out where rooftop solar could be generated combined with analyzing historical energy consumption data could help deliver on the goal of 100% renewable energy in the city of Portland. Was there any sort of precedent on this kind of research? And within Portland, who is known to have these renewable energy goals, was your research the first of its kind in analyzing rooftop potential with these tools?

CM: There has definitely been prior research done on measuring the rooftop solar potential by various organizations using established GIS models, not only in Portland, but across our planet. What I haven’t come across yet in my research are published results comparing the solar rooftop potential alongside the historical energy use by kWh for parcels at any given scale of more than a single parcel. This type and level of analysis may very well be a precedent for the industry.

As for renewable energy goals, I do know that within the city of Portland, and the county of Multnomah, the elected city and county officials have mandated that 100% of the energy needs are to be provided solely by renewables by 2035. The Oregon Clean Electricity & Coal Transition Plan requirements are that coal-generated electricity will be phased out by 2035 and that the utility will provide 50% of its customers’ electrical needs with renewables by 2040. The utility itself has stated goals of delivering 80% less greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 compared to 2010 baseline data.

MC: How does GIS make these types of analyses more achievable? Would the conclusions you’re drawing be possible without the aid of GIS experts?

CM: The tools and subsequent analysis that GIS can provide are quite powerful indeed. Prior to becoming fluent with GIS, I would have never entertained the notion of analyzing rooftops across a huge city for their solar potential and then mapping the results alongside the historical electrical consumption by parcel. GIS has made this type of analysis achievable for anyone that possesses the basic fundamentals of how to use the tools coupled to an ‘outside the box’ mentality for finding solutions to problems that still persist.

I’m confident that many before me have sat down with a model of how much solar potential exists on an average home of a certain square footage at any given latitude and crunched the numbers on a spreadsheet for executives to review. I’m reasonably confident that their numbers were similar to my results in many instances. But I know one of the biggest takeaways of GIS is the story that it can tell once it has those numbers crunched and ready to be presented. I’ve seen firsthand the story a single GIS map was crafted to tell change policy at the highest levels of the military. In the end, it’s not just the analytical results you present that can change an industry, but how you present them, and to whom.

 

MC: How far have you looked into the market effects of implementing the rooftop solar proposals using your GIS analysis? What would the effect be on the customer, how would the utility leverage it to remain viable while reducing overall energy sector emissions, have you factored in issues with renewable intermittency?

CM: That’s where more analysis needs to be focused. With solar panel deployment gaining strength every year across the country, it’s an obvious disruptor of the current, and outdated, utility business model. There’s a common argument from utilities that homeowners with solar panels coupled with net-metering are placing the burden of maintaining the grid on to customers without solar panels. That’s a very near-sighted argument that is typically spoken for political reasons within the industry and doesn’t present any viable solutions to the underlying issues at hand.

Let’s think outside the industry mold for a brief moment, shall we? Instead of the utility investing hundreds of millions to expand the generation of their Carty gas-fired plant, along with purchasing 880 megawatts of energy each year from outside providers through power purchase agreements, why not re-allocate the same capital to pay for solar panels and deploy them on selected rooftops across Portland? What if the utility decided to purchase the panels and battery storage banks in bulk direct from a factory it partnered with, re-train some of its field workforce on how to install and maintain the panels, and then deployed them across specific rooftops that were analyzed with GIS to be the most optimal for generating solar electricity?

For those that donated the space on their roofs for the solar panels, there could be a small incentive either from the utility or from the local, state, or federal government. For those homeowners with existing panels, the utility could have terms in place that either purchased the panels directly from the customer or would take over the lease of the panels leveling out the playing field. The utility could then charge all of the residential ratepayers across the service territory the same retail price for electricity, with proceeds being used to help modernize and maintain the grid. Not only would the energy be clean, but it would also help secure the grid from attack by removing a vast majority of the susceptible power stations that generate electricity which have likely already been infiltrated with malicious code from state actors.

The cost of this endeavor could either be a one-time capital expenditure, or a phased purchase over several years during roll-out, but then the utility would have a viable renewable energy source completely paid for that would generate a substantial amount of its electricity requirements for the next 20+ years before having to be replaced or upgraded. As for the benefits to the environment, going this route would remove over 2,645 megawatts of dirty energy that would have otherwise been generated by either coal, gas, or oil.

As of now, many utilities are deploying their own solar farms in open areas to feed their grid or have power purchase agreements with outside providers that have built solar farms specifically to sell energy to utilities. Even farmers are starting to realize that their land might be more valuable per acre by selling electricity from the solar panels that cover their fields than if they kept them covered with crops.

In the end, monopolies really need to re-work their existing business models to accommodate for a massive renewable-energy based market which is only becoming cheaper to enter into. There are already entire cities that are running on 100% renewable energy here in the United States and many more overseas. Monopolies have a small window to get creative and stay solvent when it comes to implementing renewables into their portfolio. If they decide to follow the wrong roadmap, there may soon come a time when leaner and more agile co-ops can proliferate across America, providing their own electricity needs for much less cost, thereby forcing the PUCs to de-regulate entire markets that monopolies once held.

MC: When you’ve shared the insights from your study with those in the utility industry, what has their reaction been? Are they excited to learn more about your GIS work and how it can help them? Are they familiar with the potential of GIS before you bring it up to them?

CM: The interest has been at both ends of the spectrum. Let’s start with the electrical utility that I originally ran the solar analysis and built the solar app for. Just three months ago, the utility sent out an organization-wide email for employees to submit their most creative ideas for an in-house sustainability and innovation program that is designed to reduce carbon emissions and help the utility to become greener. When I submitted my abstract and PowerPoint files for my solar analysis project, I received an emailed response from the program manager thanking me for my submission, but based on the statements and questions that I received in that email, I could instantly tell that my abstract hadn’t been read, nor did the manager seem to have an inkling of what GIS could do for a sustainability and innovation program. Unfortunately, I never received any other correspondence about my submission. Perhaps it was simply a matter of being a contractor as opposed to a full-time employee that my research and analysis was not given any further attention.

As for industry professionals outside of the utility, many that I have presented to have been keenly interested in the analysis and results, regardless of their GIS knowledge base. I’ve fielded interesting and thought-provoking questions from energy planning managers from Hawaii, to energy industry analysts from Texas, to doctorate students in the Middle East, all eager to learn more about the results and methodologies of my analysis.

From what I’ve seen in the past two utilities I’ve worked for, by and large executives and middle management are not yet fully aware of what GIS can really do for their organization’s evolution and bottom line. I think it really comes down to a lack of awareness, and it’s apparently not enough to have a GIS ‘change-agent’ within the lower ranks submitting fleshed out solutions to sustainability & innovation program managers to advance GIS. Having the wrong people in the wrong positions across an organization doesn’t help creative solutions get delivered efficiently through the pipeline either.

While it’s quite common for American utilities to be resistant to change and slow to evolve, the glaring problem with this ethos is that everything else around them is evolving and changing at a rapid pace due to advancements in science and technology. Eventually there will come a time when an intelligent solution will be provided that completely disrupts a particular market, and the organizations that were resistant or slow to change will crumble and dissolve, or trickle on as just a skeleton of their former self, while those that are creative, forward thinking, disruptive, agile and lean will come away with the market share at the end of the day.

 

MC: What’s the next step for this work, after your analysis has proven the viability? Will GIS be involved in this work moving forward or is it only applicable in the early analysis stage that you’ve completed?

CM: That’s a great question. Even though the utility wasn’t interested in my research on the solar analysis potential of Portland, the city and county leaders are fully committed to realizing a 100% renewable energy market in a very short time span. Given that, I’ll be sharing my research findings with the local elected officials and the Portland community at large to spread awareness. From that, I’m confident that there will be more GIS solar analysis work done with respect to the particular needs throughout the city and county.

As this initial analysis was limited to building rooftops, I didn’t run any analysis on the sun-facing sides of buildings, though there is tremendous solar potential to be harvested there. Without a doubt there will be site selection analysis for any open and undeveloped land that the city or county owns where they can opt to install their own solar farms, much in the same way you’d spatially analyze the best places to grow grapes on a vineyard.

I’m certain that once we collectively decide to remove the barriers we have put in place to our own progress, and fully incorporate the mashup of science and technology that underpins the nuts and bolts of GIS, it’s just a matter of time before GIS will really spark off a creative evolution of humanity, whether it’s renewable energy, or any other sector that we are all intertwined with.

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Thank Matt for the Post!

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