EC-MAP’s Digital Energy Q&A Featuring Patrick Currier.

EC-MAP’s Digital Energy Q&A with:

Patrick Currier, Partner, S2C Pacific and Member, EC-MAP Advisory Board

December 4, 2018

EC-MAP’s Digital Energy Q&A is a blog series where we ask thought leaders from across energy, digital technology, and government to share their views about how policy can align with a digital energy future. This is our inaugural Digital Energy Q&A post.

 

EC-MAP: When and/or how did you first hear about digitalization and energy? What was your first reaction, and how have your ideas about digital technology in the energy sector evolved since then?

Patrick Currier: It was shortly after passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007. I was asked by a partner in my firm to summarize Title XIII—the “Smart Grid” title. But before I could even attempt a summary, I first had to know what the smart grid actually was. At the time, there wasn’t much available in the public domain. The best (and simplest) description I came across—and one that I still use today—described the smart grid as the marriage between the electric grid and the communications sector.

Then in 2009, GE came along with its smart grid Super Bowl ad, featuring an animated version of the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz dancing among poles and wires singing, “If I Only Had a Brain.” As odd as that dancing scarecrow was, it brought smart grid into the mainstream, right alongside Super Bowl staples Budweiser, Ford, and Doritos. The commercial showed how the smart grid would reinvent the power sector, with promises of a more efficient system, improved reliability, and consumer cost savings.

Fast forward 10 years and it’s easy to be frustrated by the lack of deployment of “smart” technologies. Yet there is reason to be optimistic. The scope and speed by which new digital energy technologies and ideas are being developed is astonishing. So perhaps the foundation established over the last decade has served its purpose, setting the stage for the new era of energy digitalization. That is my hope. But when compared to my younger self from a decade ago, I am more realistic in my expectations and more patient as to what is “doable” in the near-term, while keeping a watchful (and hopeful) eye toward what the future may bring.

 

What digital energy trend, technology, or application are you most enthusiastic about? Why?

For me, it’s the whole shebang. All the individual component technologies and applications are exciting and crucial, but I am most enthusiastic about the end game: advanced energy and digital technologies creating a platform for true innovation and evolution into smart vehicles, smart homes, smart buildings, and smart cities—and enabling all sorts of new models, technologies, and opportunities for businesses and consumers alike. This goes beyond energy, of course, but digital energy technologies will be a key element to making it all work in a seamless, reliable, and sustainable manner.

 

Much of today’s energy policy was designed well before digital technologies existed. Do you think energy policy needs to evolve to better align with digital technologies? Is there a specific policy or regulation you believe should be refreshed, reformed, or repealed?

Yes, yes, and one more yes for emphasis. I’m talking about you, Federal Power Act.

Without reform, we may get to where we want (need?) to be eventually, but it will only come after a significant and unnecessary waste of time and money litigating how new technologies are deployed and integrated into existing markets, with the courts likely being the final arbiter rather than policymakers. It’s overstated but continues to hold true: Congress (and state lawmakers)—not the courts—are better-suited to make decisions about the future of the electricity system.

We’ve seen this movie before; just recently in fact. Demand response and its pricing didn’t fit well into the confines of the Federal Power Act. This tension triggered splits between varying market participants, resulting in the issue winding its way through the courts until the Supreme Court, in FERC v. Electric Power Supply Association, was forced to decide. The decision ended up being a positive for demand response, but the next major decision on new market entrants could yield a different result. And with energy storage, distributed energy resources (DER), resiliency pricing, Zero Energy Credits (ZECs), and state carbon policies all pending before FERC in some capacity, it’s a safe assumption that litigation over the scope and reach of the Federal Power Act is only going to increase. We could avoid the litigation headaches and instead be more proactive and thoughtful about how we address these challenging policy and market issues.

 

The digital transformation of the energy sector will inevitably face challenges along the way. Do you think the biggest challenges will be related to: technology? markets? politics? or something else? Why?

Politics, definitely politics. My experience wearing different hats in various Washington, D.C. energy circles has taught me a few central lessons, one being that even the best, most cost-effective and efficient technologies do NOT always succeed. Politics pervades nearly every technology-related decision coming out of Congress, the White House, and the Federal agencies. This is regardless of party and particularly true when it comes to energy decisions. Which resource gets the tax subsidy, which technology gets the federal grant, or which project receives the regulatory exemption is often—if not always—based on some political element, rather than just letting the market decide which product or technology should prevail. This may be a cynical view, but I challenge readers to identify any successfully integrated energy-related resource or technology that hasn’t benefited from some form of political assistance along the way. Conversely, consider what promising resources or technologies have been boxed out of the market or otherwise limited as a result of political influence at the local, state, or federal levels.

 

What will we need to do to overcome these challenges? Do you have specific ideas for actions we (EC-MAP, other stakeholders, or you) can take to better accommodate and accelerate a digital energy future?

We need a version of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) for digital energy technologies, with all the Vegas-style fanfare and celebrity status that has become synonymous with CES. This will elevate the appeal of the digital energy transformation to the masses and allow consumers to interact with the consumer-centric products at the cutting-edge of this revolution. Consumers need to experience firsthand the products available to them and the benefits offered. Empowering people directly—through experience, education, and awareness—would be a valuable tool to overcome some of the political barriers mentioned above.

With overwhelming and vocal support from consumers, we’ve witnessed significant disruption, including in law and policy, of various sectors—finance, transportation, and entertainment to name a few. This was not some theoretical exercise. People were using and enjoying real-world products that improved their lives and provided them greater control, choice, and convenience. It should be no surprise that public support for these technologies has translated to political and policy support. The same can be had for digital energy technologies, and EC-MAP in particular is well-situated to consider ways to bring these opportunities directly to people.

 

Patrick Currier recently served as Senior Energy Counsel to the Committee on Energy & Commerce in the U.S. House of Representatives where he was responsible for providing legal, policy, and regulatory advice to Members of Congress and their staff on a range of pressing domestic and international energy issues. Prior to his tenure on Capitol Hill, Patrick was an attorney at two Washington, DC, law firms – Hunton & Williams and Van Ness Feldman – focusing on a broad range of matters on behalf regulated entities, energy companies, and heavy manufacturers. Patrick received his Juris Doctor from Catholic University and his Bachelor’s Degree from Gettysburg College. To learn more about Patrick, visit www.s2cpacific.com.

 

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