Dramatic changes are happening in the electricity sector. 

Renewables are getting cheaper. Corporations are embracing clean energy. And energy storage is becoming increasingly viable. These changes are happening so fast that utilities are having concerns about the viability of their traditional business model. Some are circling the wagons, proposing legislative changes that might undermine support for distributed energy. Others, however, are rolling up their sleeves and exploring what new roles they might play in a clean energy future. 

A program called eLab is looking to accelerate that evolution. Founded by the long-time clean energy champions at the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), the focus is on bringing stakeholders together. Here's how RMI describes the process:

eLab is an assembly of thought leaders and decision makers from across the U.S. electricity sector. The group focuses on collaborative innovation to address critical institutional, regulatory, business, economic, and technical barriers to the economic deployment of distributed resources in the U.S. electricity sector.

In particular, eLab works to answer three key questions:

  • How can we understand and effectively communicate the real costs and benefits of distributed resources as part of the electricity system?
  • How can we harmonize regulatory frameworks, pricing structures, and business models of utilities and distributed resource developers to enable varied solutions that yield the greatest benefit to customers and society as a whole?
  • How can we accelerate the pace of economic distributed resource adoption?
Participants in eLab meet regularly to explore the changes in the sector, changes that are often happening in the "seams" between different players — meaning no single utility, regulator, community or business can control the outcome. The only way to really influence how things play out, then, is to get people talking, find common ground and to pursue systemic change. 

eLab is not just focused on the big picture theory. Through an initiative called Innovation Beacon, eLab works on real-world pilot projects too. One such example is a proposed 2-square mile Zero Energy District known as FortZED in downtown Fort Collins in Colorado. Here's more on how eLab got involved: 

Change is accelerating in the energy sector. Unless the traditional players can learn to evolve, they may find themselves becoming increasingly obsolete. Who would have imagined just a few decades ago that the landline was going the way of the telegram? 

Yet the very nature of change makes it harder to predict — even as utilities find their traditional role being usurped by a broad coalition of microgeneration, storage, efficiency and energy services companies. The future of energy is inherently complex, and it's implicitly collaborative. It makes sense that the process of innovating for it should be collaborative too. 

Related on MNN: