HAMM - SOLAR POWER 2031
Welcome to the 2031 annual meeting of
Tomorrow Power and Light. Our company, also
known as TP&L, has often been described as “average”
throughout the years. Our retail rates are average
compared to our utility peers. The energy
resources available in our area of the country are
average, and our customers’ electricity consumption
is average. But I am thrilled to declare, however,
that we are becoming exceptional.
This year also marks a personal milestone. It is my twentieth anniversary with TP&L. When I started with the company in 2011, our portfolio had less than 1% solar, and the idea that we could get 30% of our power from solar seemed inconceivable. As I look back on my twenty years with the utility, it provides some perspective for how we reached this great accomplishment.
In 2031, we take solar power’s role in our economy for granted, but it wasn’t always that way. When I joined the utility in 2011, solar power wasn’t very high on the list of national priorities, and actually, neither was energy in general. A recession, skyrocketing unemployment rates, national debt, and global security issues far overshadowed energy issues. The world was also shaken by natural disasters and political unrest.
Everywhere we looked, we saw what seemed at the time to be insurmountable national and global challenges. With all the changes going on outside the utility world, not much attention was being paid to the changes we were going through within the industry or those that were quickly coming down the road.
Most utilities were just beginning to become aware of the increasing role that solar energy would play in our future. Hindsight is 20/20, but looking back now we can see that 2011 was actually a real turning point. Let’s take a look at some of the solar developments that happened that year:
For one, it was the first gigawatt year. The US added well over a gigawatt of solar…almost 100% growth in the middle of a recession!
Second, solar was spreading, and spreading fast, moving beyond California, the Southwest, and the northeast to places like Texas, Georgia, Indiana, Idaho. It was quickly evolving from a regional energy source to a truly national one. We saw all types of utilities getting into solar in a big way.
Municipal utilities in states like Ohio and Texas, for example, made big strides that year towards hundreds of MW of new solar, whereas previously, municipal utilities had done solar only on a much smaller scale.
The “smart grid” was also moving from concept to reality with smart meters paving the way for utilities like us to maximize the value of distributed PV on the grid.
Finally, and probably most significantly, the price of solar had come down substantially – 60% between 2008 and 2011. In some places the price of solar power was lower than natural gas.
The momentum we saw building in 2011 continued as the next twenty years brought changes that helped us get to where we are today. We saw our first comprehensive national energy policy with the Energy Policy Act of 2013. This really set the stage for us to reach the 30% solar we have today at TP&L.
In 2014, as a result of the Energy Policy Act, the national Clean Energy Bank was set up to provide long-term, low cost project financing for renewable energy projects which helped to transition solar away from reliance on subsidies.
By 2016 most of the smart grid standards put in place by the Energy Policy Act had taken effect.
Solar intermittency and high penetration became less and less of an issue. We were seeing smarter use of energy throughout the electric grid and customers were using significantly less energy.
By 2018, solar was the least-cost resource at the retail level for our customers and was quickly approaching our wholesale costs. Our customers could ‘go solar’ cheaper than we could provide them electricity.
For other utilities in the US, they reached this point even earlier. We were in the business of selling electricity. So what were we going to do? Fortunately, Congress passed the Energy Growth & Security Act of 2020, which in part provided incentives for utilities like ours to decouple energy sales from fixed and capital costs. It also incented us to work with the solar industry to structure rates, grid services and cost-recovery in innovative and equitable ways that helped us both.
Today our electricity sales are half of what they used to be, but our revenue has kept pace with these changes, allowing us to maintain and upgrade the electric grid over time. Our business model has shifted from one primarily based on electricity sales to one that includes electric grid balancing of on-site generation for a segment of customers.
In 2022, the majority of cars became primarily electric – again largely as a result of the Energy Policy Act of 2013. This shifted transportation from petroleum to our more diverse, and domestic, electricity portfolio. We adjusted rates to encourage off-peak charging and we didn’t need significant new generating capacity – the vehicles themselves became distributed power plants we could utilize in conjunction with the smart grid.
By 2025, the price of storage technologies had come down enough that many utilities had more available compressed air and battery storage than gas peaking plants – some of it dispatchable from our customers’ electric vehicles, some of it strategically sited on our distribution and transmission grids. Today we have over 1 GW of storage that can be dispatched on demand.
By 2026 the solar industry was the single largest economic development driver within our service territory, creating thousands of new jobs year-upon-year, putting our unemployed customers back to work, and helping to rebuild residential, commercial and industrial loads for TP&L.
By 2028, the combination of new technology, lower costs, storage, smart grid…basically everything we had been working on for the last 18 years came together in alignment.
Solar was mainstream for both consumers and utilities. It was only a matter of time before solar became our biggest generating resource, which as I’ve reported happened this year.
Through it all, there has been one constant that has been evolving throughout the last twenty years, one that has made our current solar generation portfolio possible - the relationship between utilities like ours and the solar industry.
There were many issues that we needed to work though like technical solutions to high penetration rates on individual feeders, managing system-wide variability, and developing regulatory solutions to address cost recovery.
Without the collaboration between the utility and solar industries, we never would have gotten here. I remember many long days working with industry stakeholders to develop solutions and compromises and as a result, we all benefited with stronger and more sustainable businesses.
The last twenty years have certainly been full of change in the utility world. At times it was hard but we persevered. The result is a TP&L portfolio that shifted from less than 1% percent solar in 2011 to one that is over 30% today in 2031.
So, the sun that started breaking through twenty years ago is now shining in full force – thanks to an innovative and responsive solar industry, the creativity of many electric utilities in developing innovative business models, and the implementation of effective and logical government policies.
There never was a ‘silver bullet.’ Everything we needed, it turns out, we had at our fingertips back in 2011. It’s been exciting to play a utility CEO in the year 2031, looking back on the dramatic growth of solar power. But it’s time for me to come back to the present and to resume my role as President & CEO of the Solar Electric Power Association.
I believe a future like I’ve just described for you is very possible, even though the details on how we get there most certainly won’t look exactly like I’ve envisioned through my crystal ball.
Julia Hamm is the president and CEO of the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA). Prior to leading SEPA, she worked as a senior associate at ICF International. She holds a Bachelor's of Science in Business Management from Cornell University.