COLCHESTER, Vt. — In April, when Elon Musk unveiled Tesla Motors’ Powerwall battery to back up home electrical systems, Green Mountain Power Corp. CEO Mary Powell was at the event in California looking to put her company at the head of the line to order them for its customers.
Batteries will be a linchpin in a newly envisioned future for electrical energy, Powell said in an interview at the headquarters of Vermont’s largest power company this month. They’ll store solar-electric energy for when the sun doesn’t shine, provide backup power during outages, and put electricity on the grid at times of peak demand, meaning the company won’t have to buy extra power when wholesale rates are highest.
‘‘The future that we not just completely buy into but are really working hard to accelerate the adoption of is ... one that really focuses on locally grown energy and having energy grown where it is needed and used,’’ Powell said. ‘‘It’s really moving from this bulk model to one that is much more community-driven, and is driven much more by radical transformation of homes and businesses.’’
Historically, utilities made energy at big generating stations and shipped it long distances over wires to local substations that converted it for use by customers. Problems with that system include the loss of energy as it travels along transmission lines, known as ‘‘line losses,’’ as well as reliability; a system mishap can trigger outages hundreds of miles away.
Last year and this year, Vermont passed legislation that calls for more integration of ‘‘distributed generation’’ — smaller, local power sources scattered around the landscape. In 2014, the state nearly quadrupled the amount of ‘‘net metering’’ it would allow. That’s when customers generate their own power, mainly from solar-electric systems, put excess energy on the utility grid, and see their electric bills go down as a result.
One benefit to distributed solar generation is that it peaks just as demand does on the hottest days of summer, meaning utilities don’t have to buy as much wholesale power.
Powell spoke, as she has for some time, about changing her company’s profile from that of a traditional distribution utility to an ‘‘energy services’’ company. The company has begun working with customers to create ‘‘energy homes of the future.’’ NeighborWorks of Western Vermont, a housing nonprofit, partnered with GMP to offer low-interest loans of up to $15,000 for home energy improvements.
Traditional utilities have made money by maximizing electricity sales and adding equipment, then getting approval from state regulators to recover those costs, plus a markup. Energy efficiency relies more on customers to generate power themselves.
Some have speculated about a ‘‘death spiral’’ for utilities in the coming decades as a result, but Powell said she is not afraid. Cold-climate heat pumps, which run on electricity, are augmenting or replacing fossil fuel burners in a big swath of the home-heating market. This year’s Vermont legislation invited electric utilities to sell those devices along with home insulation services.
Powell said the changing strategy is being greeted skeptically by some of her industry peers.
‘‘They want to find out information so, honestly, they can kind of attack the approach and what we’re doing,’’ Powell said.