Three years ago, the public power utility in Chattanooga, Tenn., became the first municipal provider to be PEER certified by Green Business Certification Inc.
Similar to LEED, a well-known program that certifies sustainable buildings, the "Performance Excellence in Electricity Renewal" process aims to help power systems become more efficient, reliable and resilient. PEER lead Jamie Statter was on hand in Chatanooga in 2015, and told Utility Dive "it was remarkable to see how deeply the community was invested."
For utilities, the certification can be a self-check on grid modernization progress, and Statter said it could also be used to help make the case for power grid investments.
The process begins with a $1,200 application, and full certification costs $8,000. So far, municipal buildings, health care infrastructure, public power, cities and a transit system in India have completed the process. Green Business Certification works with the system administrators to develop core metrics to assess progress and outcomes, with those metrics weighted differently depending on the project's particular goals and focus.
The process means power systems of a hospital and an electric utility can be compared with one another, creating a common ranking.
Less frequent interruptions
Electric Power Board (EPB) of Chattanooga serves almost 200,000 homes and businesses, and its certification case study revealed power interruption frequency and duration far below both state and U.S. averages. Almost all of the utility's customers can receive power over more than one route, and all of its circuits can be fed from two or more energy sources. In addition, the utility's fiber optic network gives customers real-time feedback on their energy usage.
"It's not something you often see the general public get excited about," Statter said, adding there was a crowd on hand "just to celebrate the utility and the work they've done and the value they add to the community."
The PEER program is relatively new. A total of eight projects have been certified, and 20 more have launched the process. That's a far cry from the 92,000 LEED-certified projects around the globe, but Statter says the plan is to continue working with power systems to essentially force a "tipping point."
PEER was developed by industry "to add a level of rigor to efforts to modernize electricity infrastructure, both small and utility scale," Statter said. And as focus grows on sustainable, reliable and efficient systems, what happened in the building sector is beginning with power.
The LEED certification process addressed the "lack of common language and set of metrics and standards" and helped the building sector progress on sustainability. As a growing number of organizations focus on improving their power systems, the same hurdles exist. The new certification can help address that, particularly by developing a system that can evaluate and compare a disparate batch of projects.
The ability to do that, said Statter, requires "honing in on a particular set of design capabilities and the performance-based outcomes we want to see from all of our electricity infrastructure."
Chattanooga EPB's Elizabeth Hammitt is the utility's director of community and environmental stewardship, a title that fits right alongside the organizations first-adopter status with PEER.
The decision to pursue the new certification was "borne out of a desire to do the best for customers that we can, and to be prepared for the new energy future," Hammitt told Utility Dive.
Ultimately, EPB earned 294 points in its evaluation on a 400-point scale, and met all PEER prerequisites for a utility, including having a communications backbone, advanced metering infrastructure, emergency response plan and long‐term improvement plan.
"Part of our mission is to improve the quality of life of our customers," Hammitt said. And the PEER process was helpful in figuring out just how well the utility was doing. "We knew we had a very advanced grid, but it's a wonderful thing to be able to benchmark exactly how advanced it is."
In 2012, major storms knocked out most of the city's power but it was restored within hours. And using Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Interruption Cost Estimate Calculator, Green Business Certification concluded the utility's reliability enhancements save approximately $40 million a year.
But the program is also aimed at continuous improvement, Statter said. "It's very useful when you consider it that way — you can see some of your gaps."
PEER is performance-based, utilizing data on a range of issues like emissions, reliability and safety. "Having true data of how a system is performing ... allows us to set up what we're thinking of as recertification of the project," Statter said. That's one reason the prerequisites for a utility certification application include advanced metering.
One of the goals of PEER is to have certified projects go through a recertification process based on their performance, "and identify where their gaps might be, and where there are improvements they want to make."
How projects are certified
The PEER process is designed to be used by "all power systems," according to Green Business Certification, and includes guidance for cities, utilities, campuses and transit organizations.
Last month, four new certifications were announced: NYU Langone Health, a hospital; the Delhi Metro Rail Corp. in India, the first transit project to be certified; the Montgomery County Public Safety Headquarters in Maryland; and the City of Glasgow, Ky.
While there has been interest from investor-owned utilities, Statter said so far none have taken the plunge to pursue certification. "It is definitely more straightforward to work with particular owners of their own activities — like a municipal utility," she said. "On the IOU side, we are hoping this is an area where we can gain support as we continue to demonstrate the value this program can provide."
Systems are judged on six criteria:
- Reliability and resiliency
- Operations, management and safety
- Energy efficiency and environment
- Grid services
- Innovation and exemplary performance
- Regional priority
Because the goal is to enable comparison between different types of systems, those six criteria can be weighted differently depending on the project type, Statter said.
"That's one of the beautifies of the ratings system," Statter said. "A muni is using the same system as a two-building microgrid. It is really just honing in on the particular set of design capabilities or performance-based outcomes that we want to see from all of our electric infrastructure. And then it translates those into credits that might be specified differently, depending on the scale."
Renewable energy is not explicitly listed among the ratings categories, but it is heavily included said Statter, particularly in the efficiency and environment category. But there are many ways to achieve certification and utilities don't necessarily need to be heavily invested in renewables so much as moving their system in the right direction.
Chattanooga's EPB, for instance, was using almost 40% coal when it was certified three years ago, though it has been working to add more renewable energy. Last year, EPB launched the Solar Share program through a partnership with the Tennessee Valley Authority to give customers new clean energy options.
Renewable energy is one of the strategies rewarded throughout the rating system, said Statter, including credits for the avoided emissions of a project's overall power mix. Distributed energy is also a big factor.
"Distributed energy is one of most heavily rewarded strategies," Statter told Utility Dive. "It speaks to environmental outcomes as well as reliability and resilience." Green Business Certification has seen growing interest in distributed resources, she said, particularly solar+storage.
"Every individual community is going to use different strategies to achieve outcomes. Some are focused on solar and storage; some are focused on making their generation more local; and some are focused on purchasing more clean power. All of that is incentivized in the system."
Looking ahead, though only eight systems have been certified Statter said there is a lot of room for growth, particularly if you compare the PEER system to LEED.
"The promise of PEER is pretty great. It's quite remarkable how similar the point in times we are with these particular industries, and LEED really did provide that tipping point for the building industry to be able to mainstream sustainable practices," Statter said. "It feels like an eerily similar place the power sector is in right now."