RECAP: 2023 APPA National Conference

By Ethan Kirkham, Public Power Program Manager

The American Public Power Association (APPA) hosted their annual National Conference in Seattle last month, bringing together Public Power leaders from across the country to learn more from one another about clean energy solutions, market outlook, cybersecurity, customer outreach, and federal funding. With this being the first APPA National Conference hosted since the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), Climate Cabinet’s Public Power Program Manager Ethan Kirkham and Senior Advisor Frances Sawyer attended APPA’s national conference to see how Public Power leaders were responding to the changing landscape ahead of the law’s implementation. Here are some key observations from the conference:

  1. Public Power Eyes the IRA

Admittedly, there is still a lot to be established about the IRA. At the time of the conference, we were collectively still waiting on more federal guidance on Direct Pay, and—though we’ve seen rubber just starting to hit the road with programs like the Climate Pollution Reduction Grants at the state level—it will be some time before we see concrete examples of the IRA’s impact for publicly owned utilities. That being said, Public Power utilities, which operate not-for-profit and have to keep tight budgets, are aware of and appropriately interested in taking advantage of federal funding. At Climate Cabinet Education, we published a guidebook to help muni leaders leverage these historic dollars. 

Some munis have already begun incorporating potential IRA funding into their resource planning, but many others don’t have a clear vision of how they can access these funds due to lack of guidance, staff capacity constraints, or lack of a strong tradition of federal funding to Public Power, and are still looking for a way to get a piece.

To that end, the APPA hosted the Administrator of the Rural Utilities Services at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)—former mayor of Chattanooga Andrew Berke—to talk about some of the funding available via the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service. Berke recommended that munis partner with coops to get in on the benefits. (If that sounds interesting to you, stay tuned because later this month we’ll be releasing a blog post outlining what these benefits could be). 

In addition, there was a presentation from State Energy Offices (SEOs) on how the IRA is transforming the landscape of the clean energy transition at the state level, and how states are looking to pair these federal funds with existing state programs. One key part of this presentation was opening up the idea that SEOs can develop better communication and partnerships with Public Power utilities to help them take advantage of the IRA. This is a relationship we hope to see strengthened to maximize the impact of the IRA at the local level. 

What was clear from attending this conference and these federal funding oriented sessions was that Public Power leaders know there’s historic funding out there, and they want in.

  1. Munis Look to be Early Adopters of Alternative Energy Sources 

Although wind and solar paired with battery storage is leading the way on the clean energy transition, some utilities are looking to other sources like biomass, hydrogen and nuclear to meet their energy demands of the future. At APPA’s National Conference many utilities shared their current thinking on these technologies, their experience pursuing them so far, and how they intend to use them in the future. There were conversations being had about the role which these technologies could have in our energy future and considerations on the cons to the pros which come with them. Already many Public Power utilities are making investments in these experimental technologies with hopes to take advantage of supporting funds from the IRA. Climate Cabinet Education does not endorse or condemn any of these technologies, but along with everyone else with their eyes on the industry, we are monitoring how these technologies play out in the coming 5 to 10 years.

  1. Reliability is a Top Concern

Finally, reliability was perhaps the biggest concern among Public Power leaders that was present in nearly every conversation. As we electrify more and more services, demand for electricity is ever-growing, raising the stakes for whenever the grid fails to meet demand. This is a large reason utilities are so interested in diversifying their energy portfolios, along with battery storage to mitigate intermittent generation.

With an increase in extreme weather events as a result of climate change, this ever growing grid is also more vulnerable: winter storms freeze gas pipelines, droughts diminish hydropower, heat waves affect wind patterns, the list goes on. Investments in transmission infrastructure, distribution grids at the local level, resiliency measures like microgrids, and energy storage like batteries will all manage the risks that the grid faces. 

Climate change and the clean energy transition bring new challenges and new opportunities for the electricity sector and Public Power leaders are planning accordingly.

Concluding thoughts

Spanning all across the country, in different geographies and policy circumstances, Public Power collectively deals in the whole gambit of considerations in utility management and the clean energy transition. APPA’s national conference was a wealth of expertise and provided a great insight on trends and projections in the near and long term for the sector.

See you in San Diego for APPA 2024!

P.S. For Climate Cabinet’s reflections from the APPA Joint Action Conference back in January, check out our previous blog post on it!