This week, RMI's Electricity Innovation Lab (eLab) convenes the second annual eLab Accelerator. This intensive workshop—held this year at Sundance Mountain Resort in Utah—brings together a dozen outstanding project teams making change at the grid’s distribution edge. Side-by-side with leading experts from the Accelerator faculty, they’re working intensely on some of the most important and forward-looking electricity projects in the U.S.—projects that will develop solutions to create a clean, resilient, and distributed electricity system.
An overwhelming response greeted eLab's call for projects for Accelerator 2015. We identified 12 of the leading, most creative, and high-potential project teams to attend this boot camp for electricity innovation, welcoming projects that run the gamut from customer-side storage to microgrid development. Each team combines incumbents and insurgents, including utilities, regulators, NGOs, and others, and will transform communities from the city of San Diego to the state of Minnesota. Projects range from electric vehicle strategy to energy independence and resilience to microgrids to renewables and more.
At Accelerator, these 12 teams work with experienced facilitators and system-change thinkers from RMI and Reos Partners to critically review their plans and pioneer solutions to advance their work. To ensure that Accelerator project teams learn the latest and best tools and practices, an expert faculty of eLab members coach and support the participants. eLab faculty bring the best thinking available for making change in the electricity system and cover diverse areas of expertise, including distributed-energy-resource entrepreneurship, making change through regulatory reform, best practices for customer engagement, and available financing for projects.
All of these areas—and a whole lot more—need addressing in the complex world of electricity-system change. Project teams attending Accelerator tackle these topics head on and have leading thinkers and practitioners available during the meeting to roll up their sleeves with them. Together they will devise new solutions to meet the challenges at the distribution edge, where no single stakeholder or industry group can control the outcome.
The Electricity Innovation Lab has been doing, and continues to do, exactly this. eLab is a forum to create new insights about the biggest challenges facing the U.S. electricity sector, empower change agents and decision makers to accelerate transformative action, and support on-the-ground projects to test and implement innovative solutions. For example, in the past three years, eLab has:
- Partnered with a municipal utility in Colorado to design, develop, and begin implementing a new utility business model to accelerate delivery of energy efficiency and solar PV to its customers
- Supported the New York Public Service Commission’s Reforming the Energy Vision proceeding—widely acknowledged as the most innovative, ambitious regulatory-reform effort under way in the U.S.
- Released discussion papers on rate design, new utility business models, and distributed solar PV that are widely cited in regulatory proceedings and leading industry forums, and engaged several hundred industry leaders in furthering the conversation about the future of the U.S. electricity system.
Despite these encouraging developments and demonstrated impact, progress towards a transformed electricity system needs speeding up. To meet that challenge, we created new forums to expand eLab’s impact and accelerate the most promising activities taking place in the industry today: utilities, communities, and citizens across the country leading their own initiatives to pioneer new solutions and modernize the grid. eLab Accelerator, a convening ground, is designed to support these activities in three critical ways:
- Bringing insights and lessons-learned to Accelerator projects from the latest eLab projects and experience
- Providing expert support from national leaders who have been engaged in eLab from its inception and serve as faculty to mentor the teams
- Creating a community between the professionals on the front lines of industry change, and building a support network amongst the practitioners on the teams, which they can leverage when they return to their work
RMI created eLab in 2012 in response to the emerging conflicts and slow pace of change in the U.S. electricity industry that together are stifling the transformation of a system built for the 20th century into the system needed for the 21st century. Transforming any complex system requires shifting the way its stakeholders think and act, which, in turn, requires deep engagement, collaboration, and innovation across expansive institutional boundaries. Informed by the leading research and practice around social innovation, RMI developed eLab to be a forum for developing the innovative solutions needed to accelerate the transformation of the U.S. electricity system to greater efficiency and use of renewables.
eLab is a change lab, also known as a social innovation lab, employing tools and principles from emerging best practices around institutional learning and organizational transformation. As described by Zaid Hassan in his book The Social Labs Revolution:
Social labs bring together a diverse group of stakeholders not to create yet more five-year plans, but to develop a portfolio of prototype solutions, test those solutions in the real world, use the data to further refine them, and test them again. Their orientation is systemic—they are designed to go beyond dealing with symptoms and parts to get at the root cause of why things are not working.
This is exactly the sort of innovation that shifting the electricity sector requires and that eLab—and Accelerator—foster so well.
It’s hard to say what these project teams will accomplish this year, but if the progress made by the teams that joined us in 2014 gives any indication, these groups will go back to their communities not only with new ideas, but also with new solutions.
Image courtesty of Shutterstock.