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How Renewable Energy Is Staying Practical While Being Flexible

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Renewable energy sources have become an essential part of any discussion about the future of energy. Renewable generation has nearly doubled in the United States over the last five years, providing 17.6 percent of the electricity generated in this country in 2018.

But renewable energy sources have their challenges. “Right now, all-renewable isn’t practical,” notes Paula Gold-Williams, president & CEO of CPS Energy in San Antonio, Texas, the largest municipally-owned energy utility in the country. “They’re weather and time-dependent, and energy storage right now is expensive. That will change someday, but for now it’s reality.”

The future

“The energy industry is trying to figure out how to make energy more of an active part of people’s lives,” says Gold-Williams, “so that energy will enable technology to respond to how people want to live.”

That means energy providers must move carefully when adopting new energy generation technologies. One example of this thoughtful approach is a plan called Flexible Path CPS Energy launched in 2018 as a stable pathway to reducing reliance on fossil fuels.

“I began to think as a CEO how much the energy business was going to change,” recalls Gold-Williams. “So I told all of my planning people to assume that somehow technology will change so much that it is not about us generating the power, it’s about us moving the power, it’s about our service. Give me an integrated resource plan where we don’t build anything. But the fact of the matter is the industry doesn’t have all the technology that it needs today. We wanted to stay flexible. And that flexibility is one of the most important things.”

The Flexible Path is a generation strategy for the next 30 or 40 years, combining renewables with new technologies and approaches to fossil-fuel energy sources, like small capacity plants of just 200 or 300 megawatts. CPS Energy’s newest initiative, the FlexPOWER Bundle, builds on this balanced approach with another crucial aspect of tomorrow’s power management: Community involvement.

Partnership with community

CPS Energy has kicked off public input for its FlexPOWER Bundle, a “blended energy approach,” asking the community to help guide decisions regarding investment in renewable energy sources, battery storage technologies, carbon-free advanced small capacity nuclear technology, and environmental concerns while maintaining the highest levels of reliability — and affordability.

“Community engagement is huge,” Gold-Williams says. “When we did the Flexible Path, we created ambassadors throughout our company who could talk about the Flexible Path. We looked at our Flexible Path from our customers’ perspective whenever we could.”

Engagement with the community also inspired the Save for Tomorrow Energy Plan (STEP), initially launched in 2009 with the goal of saving 771 megawatts by 2020, a conservation goal CPS Energy is on pace to exceed (under budget, to boot). To build on this success, CPS Energy has reached out to the community with an initiative called FlexSTEP, seeking feedback to determine their next conservation goal.

On the cutting edge

This responsive, flexible, and blended approach has made CPS Energy a leader in renewable energy. The company recently completed a new battery storage facility at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), consisting of a 5-megawatt solar power facility and a 10-megawatt storage system. The installation will allow CPS Energy to “shift” energy — capturing it during the sunlit hours, storing it in the batteries, and then dispatching it later when demand increases.

For Gold-Williams and CPS Energy, this is about more than just keeping the lights on. “Energy enables how the world functions,” she says. “Energy enables everything.”

Jeff Somers, [email protected]

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