Louise Anne Comeau is VP of New Energy Markets and Innovation at Emera. Former NARUC President Paul Kjellander, also former Idaho PUC President, is Senior Advisor at Public Utilities Fortnightly.
The Inflation Reduction Act's $370 billion in clean energy investments, effective August 2022, are designed to accelerate private investment in clean energy solutions in all sectors of the economy. That includes strengthening supply chains from critical minerals to efficient electric appliances, and ensuring the U.S. leads the way in climate change efforts.Public Utilities Fortnightly's Paul Kjellander examines the federal funds coming into the energy and utilities space and how State Energy Offices are playing a role. Listen in as he talks to the experts who are already dealing with the big funding issues, for there is much to learn.
PUF's Paul Kjellander: What is your role at Emera?
Louise Anne Comeau: I'm Vice President of New Energy Markets and Innovation at Emera. Emera is an energy holding company based in Canada with over 2.5 million customers and operations in the States including in Florida, Tampa Electric and Peoples Gas, and New Mexico, New Mexico Gas. Also, in Canada and the Caribbean.
The bulk of my focus in this discussion is on BlockEnergy, a rate-based distributed energy startup we launched a few years ago for utilities. We are interested in seeing how it can make the most of the current federal funding opportunities and help contribute to the new energy market.
PUF: How much of a priority is it for your company to engage in this process to access an unprecedented level of federal funds for energy projects and why?
Louise Anne Comeau: We consider the administration's — what I would call — ambitious policy initiatives, as an important trigger or impetus to build the clean energy economy. At Emera, we are fully engaged in that vision and are assessing closely all the funding opportunities coming from the IIJA and the IRA. We see the opportunity and we intend on capitalizing on it.
PUF: This funding opportunity is speculative. There are no assurances you're going to get any funding. What makes it worthwhile to pursue?
Louise Anne Comeau: Although the grant funding is speculative, the sums available for eligible projects are significant and that is a driver. In addition, a lot of the funding is open to innovative solutions that are on the cusp of commercialization, such as the distributed energy startup that we have at Emera called BlockEnergy.
BlockEnergy might or might not have access to similar funding through more traditional streams, and certainly not at the scale currently available with the U.S. Department of Energy initiatives that allow BlockEnergy to pursue large projects that increase resilience and augment grid capacity more quickly. Although there's no certainty in the funding, it is worth pursuing.
PUF: This represents a funding opportunity that could kickstart some of Block Energy's activities?
Louise Anne Comeau: More than kickstart, it could be the foundation of commercialization. BlockEnergy has one project commissioned and operating in Florida — a regulated market — right now, and a second one with Pepco that is launching in Maryland — a deregulated market — at the end of the year. A third project is in the works.
But the scale of projects we can deliver with the DOE funding would move the business from batch production to volume production and commercial production quickly. That is something we wouldn't be able to do as rapidly without that kind of support.
PUF: As you look at some of these funding opportunities, how important is it for you to be developing partnerships as you start to move through this process?
Louise Anne Comeau: Partnerships are key. With our application that we submitted for GRIP funding, we partnered with utilities of all types — IOUs, co-ops, munis tribes, veterans' groups, and a low-income community.
The goal of the DOE with this funding is to fund solutions that can apply broadly across the grid and serve various communities. It's important to showcase the wide-ranging relevance of solutions to achieve success or to have a chance of success. You do that through partnerships.
PUF: Have those been easy to set up? Difficult?
Louise Anne Comeau: We were impressed with the speed at which we were able to bring together a consortium. There's an appetite in the market generally — and a recognition — that new solutions are needed, that the status quo is not going to be enough, and partners are also recognizing the value of the DOE contribution. That opens the opportunity for new solutions that are not yet commercially priced, but with the DOE funding, can quickly achieve commercial pricing.
Everyone is recognizing the value. Our view with this startup, BlockEnergy, is that we can build the grid better and we should, and this is one solution that contributes to that future grid, which serves the needs that we all see evolving, like growing electric vehicle loads.
PUF: There's a lot of funding and you seem to have found the programs that are the best fit. Which ones are they?
Louise Anne Comeau: We've looked at two programs to date. The GRIP funding opportunity, where we were encouraged to proceed and submitted a full application. We've also looked at another opportunity with OCED for rural communities, which is at an earlier stage.
We see opportunity in a number of programs. I come back to the notion that the DOE is seeking solutions with broad applicability for the grid. If you can solve to that objective, you'll find several opportunities open.
PUF: What kind of guidance are you able to get from DOE as these programs begin to mature?
Louise Anne Comeau: Yes. That's a bit complicated. Once an application is live, there's little guidance that the DOE can provide, save through Fed Connect-type general questions that are accessible to all applicants to ensure impartiality.
This can make it a bit hard for newer players like us to wade through the various elements of an application. But we've relied on our advisors to assist with interpretation where necessary. And the DOE did organize a few workshops during the process that were very helpful.
As the programs mature next year, and as we develop our relationships with DOE, we will be in a better place to apply for funding because we will have a better understanding than we did this year.
PUF: As you look at the first year of this process, how challenging has it been to navigate through this?
Louise Anne Comeau: It's been interesting. The DOE has done a good job with the funding application opportunities. There's a lot of clarity on what is applicable, what is not, the goals of the program and the process.
I will admit the timelines have been demanding for people who are new to the system. These are sophisticated applications. They require robust consideration of various aspects from the technical solution to the budget to the team required to deliver the project, always keeping in mind the DOE goals.
Even submitting the application with its numerous components can be a bit daunting. But we did it. We feel good about the application we have submitted and next time we'll have a bit more perspective and experience.
PUF: As you look at these funding opportunities in some of the processes you've been through so far, are you experiencing any potential barriers to success?
Louise Anne Comeau: No. Not really. The DOE has, in my view, developed a strong set of criteria for selection. They're well-defined and clearly inform the path for funding opportunities. I haven't seen any material barriers.
PUF: We talked a lot about the federal programs but there's also a lot of money that will be directed to the states to be administered. Is that a near-term priority for you?
Louise Anne Comeau: We are just digging into that now. We are trying to get a better handle on eligible participants and what types of projects will be funded. We do believe there's real opportunity there as well, and we intend to add that to our focus, but it's a new area for us.
PUF: Let me ask two last questions. One, what advice would you give vendors interested in funding programs? The other is, you are about eight months into this, what advice would you give yourself as you're starting out based on what you know now?
Louise Anne Comeau: The answers are very similar. First, start at the RFI stage to familiarize yourself with the requirements and opportunities. Read any draft FOAs that are released. Do not wait until the formal FOA is released. It will not give you enough time to develop a strong application.
Second, the DOE wants real projects with clear timelines to completion. Conceptual ideas are not going to win. Make sure you've got real projects lined up.
Finally, identify partners early. That process can take time.
Bringing partners to the table will bolster the application and prove the relevance of the solution to the grid and its various constituents.
IRA-IIJA Funding articles at fortnightly.com:
- AEP Senior Vice President Matthew Satterwhite
- NASEO President David Terry
- Illinois Commerce Commission Commissioner Ann McCabe
- EEI Executive Vice President Phil Moeller
- U.S. DOE Grid Deployment Office Chief of Staff Whitney Muse
- Emera VP of New Energy Markets and Innovation Louise Anne Comeau
- Idaho Office of Energy and Mineral Resources Administrator Rich Stover
- Idaho Power Senior Manager of Operations Support Melissa Boyd