Everything You Need to Know About the Solar Electric Power Association (Smart Electric Power Alliance)

solar panel under blue sky

The Washington D.C.-based Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) is one of the leading nonprofit organizations working to create a carbon-free future for the planet. 

For the past 29 years, SEPA has helped organize educational programs, research initiatives, and conferences to increase public awareness about renewable energy.  SEPA brings key stakeholders in the American electric power industry together to develop solutions that will help the US transition to a clean and smart energy future by 2050.

In this article, we explore everything there is to know about the Solar Electric Power Association, or the Smart Electric Power Alliance, as it’s known today. 

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Key takeaways

  1. The Solar Electric Power Association is an educational NGO that organizes conferences, publishes reports, and develops conceptual strategies on solar energy distribution and smart electrical grids.
  2. In 2016, the Solar Electric Power Association changed its name to the Smart Electric Power Alliance to reflect its increased focus on clean energy distribution systems.
  3. SEPA’s bold vision is to help the United States transition to a carbon-free energy system by 2050.

History of the Solar Electric Power Association

The Solar Electric Power Association was first founded in 1992 as the Utility PhotoVoltaic Group (UPVG), whose main mandate was to research the technical and economic viability of integrating solar energy onto the existing electricity grid. 

Working with the U.S. Department of Energy and partners from the U.S. electric utility industry, UPVG implemented a series of federally-funded programs to demonstrate the benefits of photovoltaic technology for households and businesses. These included small-scale, off-grid installations of solar panels that could generate up to 50 megawatts of power as well as larger, grid-connected photovoltaic systems.

In 2000, the organization changed its name to the Solar Electric Power Association to reflect its growing involvement in the nascent utility solar sector. SEPA helped utility companies in the U.S. integrate solar energy into their portfolios and build improved energy distribution networks to bring down the cost of solar-powered electricity.

In April 2016, SEPA changed its name once more to the Smart Electric Power Alliance.

Changing its name

Solar Electric Power Association’s name change to the Smart Electric Power Alliance came as part of a broader organizational shift to focus more on clean energy distribution systems than just solar-generated electricity alone. 

The shift came about after SEPA’s leadership realized that smarter, more dynamic, and responsive electricity grids were essential to maximizing the rollout of solar energy across the U.S. 

These smart grids have improved energy storage systems, demand response programs, and intelligent energy efficiency devices that deliver clean electricity to consumers at cheaper and faster rates. 

Besides these expansions, SEPA still focuses on helping utility companies integrate and deploy solar energy within their networks. It has also continued expanding and formalizing its network of energy partners, thus the change of its name from an association to an alliance. 

It merged with the Association for Demand Response and Smart Grid (ADS) to increase its smart technology know-how. And it has bolstered its relationships with energy industry leaders such as Siemens Digital Grid and Pacific Gas and Electric Company.

What does SEPA do?

The Smart Electric Power Alliance’s main mission is to promote the expansion of solar energy on the grid using new distributed energy technologies and strategic utility planning processes. 

To this end, SEPA works with all energy stakeholders, including utility companies, government agencies, customers, and clean technology companies. SEPA organizes networking events, like its annual Utility Conference, to foster peer-to-peer utility learning among these actors and share the latest energy management tools and expertise.

As of 2021, the Smart Electric Power Alliance has more than 1,000 members who depend on it for the latest and most reliable research on renewable energy utility management. SEPA publishes regular reports on microgrids, electric vehicle infrastructure, and utility management case studies that provide members with key insights and data for decision-making. 

Beyond its thought leadership role, SEPA also assumes a collaborative function by organizing working groups that bring together different government agencies and private sector groups to create solutions for the different stages of the electricity value chain.

As many utility companies have now set carbon-free or net-zero emissions goals, SEPA helps them integrate solar energy as well as other energy resources onto their grids to achieve this end.

What types of renewable energy does it invest in? 

The Smart Electric Power Alliance only invests in solar energy and its associated technologies. According to its President and CEO, Julia Hamm, SEPA does not have any plans to expand its mission to work on other renewable energies such as wind, geothermal, or hydropower. 

Its focus on solar energy includes the entire electricity business community, from regulators to utility companies. SEPA plans to develop a deeper understanding of how these different stakeholders work together as it believes that efficient connections between them are key to delivering solar-generated electricity to more people. 

SEPA also invests in research on distributed energy resources (DER), which are the technologies and processes used to manage smart grids. These tools are crucial for maximizing the efficiency of solar-generated electricity on the grid. 

DERs provide real-time data on the energy load of the grid as well as the amount being used by consumers. They also help different components of the grid automatically communicate with one another and exchange energy based on the demand and grid constraints. 

SEPA’s interest in DER covers tools and mechanisms such as demand response, energy storage, and the infrastructure for electric vehicles. Demand response and energy storage are both important elements of future smart grids as it helps utility companies anticipate and provide for their customers’ energy demands in the most balanced manner possible. 

SEPA also focuses on electric vehicle infrastructure to prepare for electric vehicle charging’s increasing demands on the U.S. electricity network. As of 2020, the U.S. government has approved nearly $3 billion in transportation electrification investments, which will be rolled out in the next few years.

Recent SEPA projects

As part of its new focus on clean energy deployment, the Smart Electric Power Alliance has initiated a series of projects to help members of the U.S. energy industry adopt carbon-free technology. 

Here’s a look at 3 of SEPA’s most recent projects.

Orange Button

The Orange Button initiative was created by the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative to streamline the way the solar industry collects and manages data. 

SEPA, along with four other partnering organizations, has been managing the Orange Button working group to develop relationships with key stakeholders in the industry. They have also been establishing a solar bankability criteria to help stakeholders exchange quality data. 

The success of this project will provide state and local governments, banks, solar companies, and utilities with access to high-quality data that can be used to make the solar electricity marketplace more transparent and efficient in a self-sustaining manner. 

Plug and Play DER Challenge

In the coming years, DERs such as rooftop solar panels, smart thermostats, and household energy storage systems are expected to become more abundant as homes switch to cleaner energy alternatives. SEPA has been researching to better understand the impact these “plug and play” devices will have on the electric grid.

SEPA’s goal is to develop a cohesive management strategy to safely integrate these DERs onto the grid in a way that benefits both the utility companies and their customers. A well-managed grid will enable consumers to better manage their energy consumption. It will also help utility companies improve the reliability and resiliency of their grid. 

Utility Transformation Challenge Survey

In 2020, the Smart Electric Power Alliance embarked on an ambitious project to conduct an unbiased assessment of utility companies’ transition to a carbon-free energy system. This comprehensive study will reveal insights into the corporate strategy, solar storage, and grid integration processes of these companies. 

Using the Utility Transformation Survey, SEPA has collected baseline data on how different regions of the country are driving the U.S. electricity grid towards a clean energy future. 

Plans for the future 

The Smart Electric Power Alliance has a bold vision to help the United States transition to a carbon-free energy system by 2050.

SEPA decided on this vision after seeing investor-owned utility companies make voluntary commitments to get to 100% clean energy by the middle of the century. 

Companies that were once resistant to clean energy, such as MidAmerican Energy and Idaho Power, had closed down most of their coal and gas plants to begin integrating wind and solar power onto their grids. They were responding to investors and customers who demanded that their energy be produced from renewable energy sources.

The cultural shift among their stakeholders has convinced SEPA that it plays a unique role in bringing high-quality education, research, standards, and collaboration to the energy industry. SEPA plans to use these skills to create future smart grids through 4 key pathways which are utility business models, regulatory innovation, grid integration, and transportation electrification. 

The Smart Electric Power Alliance will also continue organizing the Solar Power International (SPI) conference which is the largest solar conference in the U.S. The event is a place for members of the energy industry to share ideas, discuss industry trends, and build their networks.

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