ESNA Interviews Brian Bentz, CEO of Canada Utility Alectra Inc.

Posted June 2, 2017 by Zoe Fishman

In advance of his keynote presentation at Energy Storage North America, Brian Bentz, the President and CEO of Alectra Inc., spoke with the Energy Storage North America team about energy storage planning, future technology trends and what he’s most looking forward to learning at ESNA.

Alectra is the largest municipally-owned utility by customer base in Canada and the second largest in North America after the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

1. With the increasing amount of DERs being added to the utility generation mix, what steps are you taking to integrate these resources?

We are exploring a variety of different strategies to help prepare our network for an increase in distributed generation. 

Through our POWER.HOUSE pilot we’ve looked at how aggregating a group of residential customer site storage assets can be coordinated to more effectively manage an increase in solar penetration.

We also have some new pilots on the horizon to explore how to use smart charging stations to efficiently accommodate an increase in Electric Vehicles in our territory.  We’re also in the early stages of determining how Distributed Energy Resource Management platforms (DERMS) can help manage a variety of both new distributed generation and traditional utility assets to maximize the locational benefit that DERs can provide. Ultimately we see the increase of DER penetration in our network as an exciting new opportunity for us. 

2.  What’s your company’s strategy with respect to energy storage?

Our approach to energy storage is to focus on exploring the full range of capabilities that the technology can provide, with the understanding that the value proposition it can deliver is still being defined.

We see ourselves as being in a capacity building stage, where we are getting familiar with both the hardware and software solutions that are available in the market, as well as the future value streams that they can unlock as market dynamics change. Storage is such a flexible asset that it can be used to solve a variety of network problems that  we may encounter down the road.  

Building our expertise in the area of energy storage management now will put us in an advantageous position in the future when technology costs decline and market services become increasingly available.   

3. In your view, which use cases for storage offer the greatest benefit within your grid territory? 

The characteristics of storage, either distributed or utility scale, lend themselves well to a few key services.

The first is firming renewable intermittency so that we can dispatch it when we need it.  That is probably the most natural fit for storage and one of its key value propositions.  The second is on-site resiliency. However, given the reliability of our network, we don’t often see this as a major driving force to adopt energy storage today.   

Capital deferral and market services are also compelling value streams for storage. What we’ve seen is that the core capabilities of energy storage– its fast response time, high availability, and low maintenance profile – can be applied to such a wide variety of use cases that the real value lies in its flexibility. In other words, it’s not a single use case that makes energy storage so attractive to our network operators, but the fact that it can adapt to address multiple use cases as the dynamics of our system load change.

4. What are the top 2 or 3 technology trends that you see impacting your business in the coming years?

The rise of behind the meter generating resources will certainly have a major impact, particularly as these technologies come down in cost. The move towards more sustainable, renewable forms of generation to meet our electrical and heating needs can also potentially result in a significant shift in the shape and magnitude of our system load. We also see the increase of electric vehicles and the expansion of EV charging infrastructure as having a significant impact on our business. The technology that will enable virtual power plants and aggregation will be in demand. Each of these trends presents both opportunities and challenges that we as an energy services provider will have to adapt to. We are also seeing a rising trend in interest in transactive energy, which we are very keen to learn more about.

5. How would you characterize the Canadian storage market from a policy perspective? 

There are several policies, both at the Canadian provincial and federal levels, that could support an increase in demand for storage in the near future. In Ontario, recent changes to rate regulation now permit smaller commercial and industrial customers to opt in to a rate class in which demand charges make up a much larger proportion of their bill. This would effectively allow a much larger group of customers to take advantage of the functionality that storage is ideally suited to provide. Recent changes to the provincial net metering regulation also now permit storage to be considered as a renewable resource, provided it is connected to renewable generation, making the business case for storage far more appealing. Finally, Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) last year issued a Request for Information (RFI) to better understand the potential benefits of expanding its regulated market, which could signal an opportunity for owners of storage systems to add another layer to their value stack. 

At the federal level, the Canadian government recently implemented a National Carbon Policy that requires all provinces to develop some form of carbon pricing, either through a carbon tax or a cap and trade system. This certainly paves the way for the economic case for storage to become stronger.

6. What are you most looking forward to seeing/learning at Energy Storage North America this summer?

We are interested in catching up with the latest trends, initiatives and learnings from other innovative utilities and technology providers. We are also keen to learn how other players have successfully implemented business models for energy storage for their customers.