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NH wants suggestions on what to look at in dealing with changes in the electric grid



Last modified: Sunday, September 13, 2015
With projects like Northern Pass and gas pipelines whipping up debate, power plants shutting down, disruptive technologies like solar panels and smart meters cropping up everywhere, and whispered fears of utilities facing a financial “death spiral” that could weaken the power supply, the once-staid business of making and transmitting electricity is getting turned upside down.

Which explains why New Hampshire is looking for suggestions about how – or maybe even whether – the electric-utility system should be righted again.

“It’s really a question of, ‘Are we investing in energy infrastructure that will support the future ways that we produce and consume energy?’ ” said Meredith Hatfield, director of the Office of Energy and Planning. “We have spent a lot of time and money investing in a large-scale grid that supports central power generation and transmitting electricity long distances. As we move more toward distributed generation and people producing their own energy ... we want to know are we taking steps now to make sure that we’re not tying ourselves too much to the traditional way of doing things.”

In technical terms, the Public Utilities Commission is seeking public comments on a docket with the dry title “Investigation into Grid Modernization.” They’re seeking suggestions about which things they should first consider as they try to reshape the power grid, from power plants to transmission lines to the meter on your home.

The docket was prodded by House Bill 614, which was signed into law in July. It ordered the PUC to proceed toward implementing goals of the 10-year energy plan.

The deadline for comments on the docket, number IR-15-296, is Thursday, Sept. 17; for more information, contact the PUC at 271-2431.

After comments are collected, staff will create a scoping document to decide whether the state should concentrate on energy efficiency programs, or two-way electric meters, or new rate structures for utilities, or microgrids, or demand-response payments, or something else as it moves forward. The issue will eventually go to the Public Utilities Commission, which will decide on what actions to pursue, in what order.

“You need to look at a bunch of things at the same time, but it’s a question of resources,” said Hatfield. “If you’re the PUC, you’ve got to keep the lights on, keep cranking out all those dockets and rate cases that need to happen to keep the current system working – but think about new ways of doing it at the same time.”

There’s plenty at stake.

“The goals are better integration of distributed resources – solar, electric vehicles, storage, demand response ... better communication between utility and customer, better outage management, and empowering customers to have more control over when and how they use energy,” said Tom Frantz, director of the electric division of the Public Utilities Commission. “All that should lead to better utilization of resources, and hopefully lower cost, while achieving a cleaner and more reliable grid ... and perhaps a decreased vulnerability to cyber attacks.”

Although deregulation of the electric system has been going on for years, two things have accelerated the change: The arrival of shale oil and gas, which cut power prices so much that it contributed to the shutdown of Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant as well as several coal-fired powers plants; and the drop in cost of photovoltaic solar panels, which makes “home-grown” electricity a viable alternative to buying power from the local utility.

These have shaken up the traditional model of power production, under which utilities have a monopoly with set profit, in return for guaranteeing power production and submitting to government oversight of their rates.

Some fear the shake-up might push utilities like Unitil and Eversource into a financial crisis, in which they’re loaded with expensive equipment that’s no longer needed as technologies sidestep them and efficiencies reduce the need for their services, weakening the whole power system.

Many states are, like New Hampshire, trying to decide how to react. . Massachusetts and particularly New York are much further along with investigations into how to change the electric grid in their states, producing such things as utility-owned solar farms and upcoming microgrids.

New York in particular is taking a lead on the issue, as it has pledged to rewrite most or all of the regulatory and technical systems involved in electricity, a sweeping approach that in some ways goes beyond even the efforts of California, long the leader in new power regulations.

Part of the issue is that the electric utility system has developed over a century with specific incentives designed to generate and transmit more electricity, which may no longer be what is needed.

“How do you reward the utility for doing things differently?” Hatfield asked. “We have a well-oiled machine, they know how to do what we’ve asked them to do in the past ... now we’re saying, we want you to help us become less dependent on you. That can be difficult.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)