Bridging the gap and offering peer-to-peer contact

The Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) is a relatively small bunch of industry heads who work towards both facilitating peer-to-peer contact for solar and utility companies, bridging the gap between these two powerful industries from their headquarters in Washington, DC, United States.

Julia Hamm, SEPA’s Executive Director, certainly knows her way around the association, having worked in numerous capacities to support the cause since she came onboard in 1999. “I worked at the association doing marketing, membership and events planning from 1999 to 2002 and then I left to do some consulting in the energy efficiency industry,” she explains.

“In January of 2004, the board of directors came to me and asked if I’d come back to the association as the executive director. I’ve been back here in that role ever since.” Founded in 1992 as the UPVG (Utility Photo Voltaic Group), SEPA changed its name in 2000. Today, the association is a non-profit group which, under the United States internal revenue service tax codes, means it is defined as a charitable organisation. Hamm states that SEPA is by no means a lobbying group or policy advocate, but is “an unbiased resource for information for both our membership and the public at large as it relates to solar energy.”

“Our mission is really specific to the utility industry and we strive to be an unbiased source of information on solar technologies, policies and programmes for the electric utility industry in order to help them make decisions related to the integration of solar energy into their business plans,” she says. Of course, the United States has a pretty large pool of utilities and solar industries to cater for, and SEPA has a lot of varied, sometimes challenging, vital work to do.

Understanding all of the U.S.

In furthering its strong peer-to-peer, or B2B focus, Hamm explains that the utility-to-utility component of SEPA’s work makes up a large focus.

“A significant portion of our activities (for utility-to-utility) are related to creating forums and other means by which the electric utilities can have peer-to-peer interaction, where they can learn from each other’s experiences, discuss lessons learned because utilities—especially in the U.S.—are at very different places on the solar learning curve,” she explains.

“Some utilities have a significant amount of experience, but really there are far more that are just beginning with solar,” she says. SEPA strives to create a forum, to learn more about solar needs not just reinventing the wheel or learn by difficulties encountered by them.

“They can avoid some of the mistakes or a potential pitfall that other utilities have already encountered and that’s the first component,” Hamm says. “The other component is the utility to solar industry connection. We really strive to serve as a bridge between utilities and the solar industries.” Within bridging this gap, SEPA first faces the hurdle offered by the historically separate, sometimes even adversarial, relationship between these two ever intrinsically-linked industries.

“We do a lot of work to bridge these two industries and to help them learn about each other so that they can begin to speak the same language, to understand each other’s issues and so that they can work in partnership,” Hamm says.

“We’re very fortunate in that we’re starting to see the solar and utility industries recognise that they need each other in order to succeed. They cannot continue to have an adversarial relationship and at the same time grow and protect their businesses in the ways they want.”

This dawning of a new partnership between the utility and solar industries is also down to what Hamm describes as the “more straightforward part,” of SEPA’s challenge here; utilities’ increasing openness and preparation for undertaking major solar programmes or projects. In this, SEPA supports both parties and acts as an aid to connect these utilities with suitable vendors to orchestrate these exciting new ventures.

SEPA puts know-how to the test

This year, SEPA will hold its second Utility Solar Conference; a great example of the work the association conducts amongst its members and the wider utility and solar industries. “It’s open only to utilities and a very small handful of industry sponsors. It’s an expert forum to really provide a safe environment in which utilities can openly and honestly discuss with each other, the issues that they’re having when it comes to solar integration and start to look for solutions,” Hamm explains.

“By having a handful of industry sponsors, we very carefully select companies that we believe to have a very strong offering to the utility industry,” he adds. In addition to providing this environment for open discussion and support, SEPA has enjoyed great success with the implementation of its Utility Solar business Model Initiative, which was originally introduced in 2007. The association has been studying the different sorts of business models that utilities in the United States have been using to integrate solar/utility skill projects and also commercial residential projects such as rooftop installations.

“That has been extremely valuable in terms of those utilities understanding what other utilities are doing to see if they can find models that are replicable and would work for them,” Hamm says. “It’s also extremely valuable in helping the solar industry to understand the issues that the utilities are dealing with and the programmes that they’re trying, and also for our stakeholders the law firms, the researchers, and those interested in what the utilities are doing.”

Direct outcomes from this initiative include; a working group, a forum in which they can to interact and discuss all sorts of issues. “We are about to release the second utility/solar business models report; so an actual report to detail all of the analysis of the different business models that have been used and tried by utilities so far,” Hamm says.

This will provide beneficial updates on the first report, released back in 2008, and should be released within the coming month. “Another component of that initiative is a decision tool for utilities and that will be released in conjunction with the report in the next few weeks,” Hamm reveals.

“it’s really a decision tree that utilities can look at and start at the top: answering a set of questions focused on their business environment, the regulatory environment in their state, and also what their goals are for solar projects.” Armed with the decision tree, a new utility/solar business models report and a fresh forum for exchange of ideas and discussion, the bridge SEPA is building between the utility and solar industries stands on firm foundations.

SEPA today and tomorrow

The association is about to launch a new set of working groups as a result of the one already in place. Within the coming year, SEPA plans to establish these to further cooperation between members on the various issues, developments and changing relationship between the utility and solar industries.

“I think it’s a good demonstration of what we do. It’s about the peer-to-peer information sharing with the utilities but also connecting them to the solar industry,” Hamm says.

In October of 2009, SEPA formed Solar Energy Trade Shows LC with its own association peer, Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), Hamm explains that while this partnership is not new (SEPA and SEIA have partnered on initaitives in 2004), the associations have collaborated in-house on the conference.

“The decision to form the Solar Energy Trade Shows LC was really based on a couple of different factors,” she says. “One, was that we felt there would be great value in having staff dedicated to the interests of Solar Power International, PV America and any other potential trade shows which non-profits wanted to do together in partnership.”

The other factors centre on the resources previously required on both SEPA and SEIA’s parts in order to put the conference together. “Putting on a trade show is a very time-consuming activity, especially one like Solar Power International which has 27,000 attendees and 900 plus exhibitors,” Hamm explains.

“Having staff outside the association that can focus on [the trade show] frees up our staff time to work on the other activities that are of value to the membership.” In addressing the needs, relationship, and development of the utilities and solar industries, between their peers and each other, SEPA has certainly considered all avenues. The association facilitates a natural relationship between both industries, and remains both unbiased and exists as a vehicle for information for each individual industry at the same time. It’s a huge task to take on, but Hamm explains that in all endeavours SEPA remains strongly-focused on one thing.

“We’re really looking long-term to increase the education of the utility industry about the value that solar energy can provide to their business,” she says. In assembling this array of resources, ranging from business model testing, to discussion groups and education tools, SEPA offers an all-encompassing resource bridging two very exciting energy industries.

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