SEP Designation5 min read
By Erin Miller, Assistant Vice President of Energy Policy and Sustainability
The American Public Power Association (APPA) in 2019 introduced the new Smart Energy Provider (SEP) program, a best practices designation for municipal electric utilities to demonstrate their commitment to and proficiency in energy efficiency, distributed generation, renewable energy and environmental initiatives.
While a rush of utilities from around the country applied for the designation in its inaugural year, only 67 communities qualified that first year to receive the award, and the AMP member communities of Bowling Green and Westerville were in that group. Since then, the AMP member communities of Coldwater, Napoleon and Wadsworth have joined the ranks of SEP communities. In earning SEP designation, these communities have gained national recognition for their utilities’ efforts and an ability to promote their credibility in these areas with their customers.
“The SEP designation from APPA showcases utilities that are working to reduce emissions, be responsive to customers’ needs and provide opportunities for their customers,” said Erin Miller, AMP assistant vice president of energy policy and sustainability and member of APPA’s SEP Review Panel. “It is a great way to promote the work that many of our members are already doing, and for those that don’t currently meet the designation, it provides an industry best practice roadmap for them to refer to.”
Despite the program’s stringent requirements, several AMP member communities have found that they were already operating with best practices.
Napoleon City Manager Joel Mazur knew his utility was doing a lot of great work. Therefore, when APPA launched the SEP designation, he knew Napoleon would be a strong applicant.
“After reviewing the requirements to receive the designation, we determined that we would be able to qualify,” Mazur said. “The application process is grueling, but if you are already doing all of the right things, completing the application is worth it. This designation offers a way for us to demonstrate to our customers and community that we provide the highest quality, efficient and sustainable service to everyone on our system, and it validates everything that we do day in and day out.”
Napoleon officially earned their SEP designation in 2021, joining the other AMP member utilities to have received the designation. Officials from each community encourage other AMP member communities to pursue qualification for the designation.
“We recommend that any AMP member community apply for an APPA SEP designation,” said Tara Trigg, City of Westerville Electric Division business manager. “By applying, you and your community members will learn how your utility’s programs and initiatives compare to other public power utilities. The first application can be used as a benchmark for your utility and help drive change.”
While an SEP designation brings with it national recognition of utility efforts, it also provides other, less obvious benefits. For the City of Bowling Green, it serves as a benchmark and roadmap for best practices moving forward.
“We offer quality energy efficiency and sustainability programs and services to our customers, and the SEP designation helps us to promote our exceptional services to the community and potentially gain customer participation in our programs,” said Brian O’Connell, City of Bowling Green director of public infrastructure and utilities director. “With that said, we also thought this would be a good way to benchmark ourselves with other utilities and identify areas of good performance, as well as areas of opportunity for improvement.”
SEP designations last for two years, and utilities that wish to maintain their SEP status must reapply. As of October, five AMP member communities have attained SEP designation for the second time.
“The first time that the City of Westerville Electric Division received the designation in 2019 was a great validation that the utility was providing the best possible service,” Trigg said. “For the second designation, we had to convey what new initiatives had been developed and implemented and how previously reported programs had grown since our first designation. It was a bit more intimidating, but even more important for us to confirm our continued commitment to efficiency and show residents and businesses that we are actively working on these issues.”
Each application submission, must go through the APPA’s application process. This involves gathering and compiling statistics, supporting documentation, program descriptions and other associated items, which are then submitted through the online application portal.
Documents will relate to 23 SEP application questions. Sample questions include:
- Does your utility engage in research and development on the topics of energy efficiency, distributed energy resources, and/or sustainability?
- Which of demand response programs does your utility offer?
- Does your utility track greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from its energy supply?
- Does your utility communicate your “smart energy” efforts to the community?
The APPA collects an application fee in order to partially cover any costs associated with the SEP program. However, members of AMP are also members of the APPA, so the cost for this application is steeply discounted from $2,250 to $750, $500 or $250, depending on the number of customers a utility serves.
While the application process can be arduous, AMP programs and services can contribute toward a successful application, and AMP staff are available to assist members in finding the right information.
“AMP offers several programs that meet the SEP application requirements,” Miller said. “Our energy efficiency and demand response program, Efficiency Smart, Key Accounts Services, EcoSmart Choice®, CPower Partnership, Community Energy Savings Day Program — they can all contribute toward SEP designation.”
AMP staff can also help in other ways, such as by providing member-specific statistics and reports from AMP’s services and programs. In one case, AMP even assisted a member community that was incorrectly denied SEP designation, even though they should have qualified.
“AMP staff was integral in assisting with Napoleon’s application,” Mazur said. “With the help of AMP staff, we were able to provide the necessary documentation to qualify.”
Questions for the SEP application focus on four disciplines: smart energy program planning, energy efficiency and distributed energy resources (DERs), environmental and sustainability programs, and customer communication and education. While gathering information can be difficult, many AMP member utilities are already undertaking many of the projects and programs needed to achieve the designation.
- Smart energy program planning: This section covers how a utility handles incorporating new programs and technologies, including in the areas of sustainability, DERs or other new technologies. It considers research, development and how utilities benchmark against similar utilities.
- Energy efficiency and DERs: This section covers the related methods and programs offered to customers, including demand response, distributed generation and storage, or supply-side/demand-side energy efficiency programs. It also considers the types of customers that these methods and programs try to reach.
- Environmental and sustainability: This section covers the measures and programs used to reduce emissions and other adverse impacts on the environment, and it asks utilities how they engage with stakeholders in the community. It also considers the progress and tracking of emission savings from these efforts.
- Customer communication and education: This section covers communications between the utility and customer, and provides the utility an opportunity to explain the efforts it takes to evaluate and elevate customer satisfaction with smart energy programs. It also considers training programs offered to utility customer service representatives to improve customer experience.
Applications for the next round of SEP designations will be accepted from Dec. 1 through April 30, 2022. The SEP panel will then review applications through summer 2022 and announce qualifying utilities in October during the 2022 APPA Customer Connections Conference.
“I would encourage AMP members to complete the SEP application, and I suggest they start by reviewing the categories and questions in the application to get a sense of what they are looking for,” O’Connell said. “An AMP member probably has a good idea if they can meet certain requirements or not, so start by making some notes on questions for which you know you will have a response.”