Modernizing the electricity system changing our habits

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    A traditional electric meter at left, and a "smart meter" at right. New Hampshire Electric Cooperative—

Monitor staff
Published: 5/26/2016 2:00:16 AM

Preparing for the future of electricity will require a lot of new software and hardware, but just as important, and probably more difficult, is making use of what science-fiction writers sometimes call the “wetware” – that is, people.

“If members don’t change their habits, all that technology doesn’t matter,” said Steve Camerino, president of New Hampshire Electric Cooperative.

NHEC is the only state utility to have equipped its customers with smart meters, which provide more information to both customers and the utility. It is using them to roll out a program under which customers can react to peak-usage times by cutting back on their own electricity use for a few hours.

This can save them some money under “time-of-day” pricing, when electricity costs more or less at different times of day, and it can potentially save NHEC a lot of money, since providing power at peak-usage times is expensive. Providing peak power can also be very polluting, involving firing up special turbines or turning on old, dirty plants.

Providing customers with information so they can avoid usage during peak times is one of the key technological changes needed to move our century-old electric power grid into the 21st century. But the cooperative’s big lesson so far, Camerino said, is that the lure of dollars and cents isn’t always enough to create that change.

“Getting people to have a willingness to change when they use power . . . is difficult,” Camerino said. “We think we’re providing an incentive, but many people will view that as a penalty rather than an incentive.”

To make his point, Camerino talked about a recent conference call among the cooperative’s customers and staff to discuss its programs. Not a single person asked about how to best use this information to decide how to change some habits – whether it made sense to delay running the dryer until late at night, for example. They only wanted to know how much the new system would cost them as they live.

Camerino was part of an informal discussion Wednesday morning about the dry-as-dust topic of grid modernization, a term for how to change the entire system of creating and providing electricity so that it can cope with solar power and distributed-energy systems, while meeting goals in cutting greenhouses gases and not worsening climate change – and not going bankrupt. It was sponsored by several technology and clean-power groups, the Northeast Clean Energy Council, New Hampshire CleanTech Council and the New Hampshire High Tech Council.

The state government is officially pondering this topic as well, via a Public Utilities Commission investigation on grid modernization that is scheduled to report in December, plus a semi-related PUC docket looking at net metering, the method of paying individuals for their solar power. Other states are doing similar things as everybody struggles to understand what might be called Utility 2.0, and some are much further along, including Massachusetts and particularly New York. New York’s project, called Reforming the Energy Vision or REV, is being eagerly watched across the country.

The problem is that a century of expensive technology under which a few large power plants sent electricity over wires to customers, who paid solely based on how much they used, is having trouble changing. That’s partly because the regulated system most utilities operate under – although not a cooperative like NHEC, which is why it can be further along with the so-called smart grid – have been set up to pay utilities only for selling more electricity. That creates few incentives for utilities to help people reduce usage or change practices.

Changing the utility and electricity system isn’t a new idea at all. Clifton Below, a former state senator and former PUC member, noted during Wednesday’s conference that May marks the 20th anniversary of a state law that called for restructuring of retail electricity rates “to harness the power of competitive markets.” That 1996 law, which Below said was probably the first of its kind in the country, cited “real-time pricing” and self-generation of power as two of its goals. They’re still goals.

And it’s not just utilities and regulators trying to figure things out.

North American Power is an energy supply company that buys electricity contracts on the open market and sells contracts to customers, trying to undercut the rates provided by regulated utilities like Eversource. It recently introduced in New Hampshire and eight other states what it calls the “Understandabill.”

Along with telling customers how much electricity they used the previous month, it would predict what their usage would be in the coming month, based partly on weather forecasts, including a breakdown of how the company predicts they would use that power – this percentage for lighting, that percentage in the kitchen, etc. – and give “personalized actions they can take to use less.”

“A good rate is important, but also providing our customers with this easy-to-read report helps them better understand and anticipate their cost for electricity,” Greg Breitbart, North American Power’s co-founder, said in a press release.

The fact that such a report available on cell phones is unusual says something about where the electricity system is compared with similar systems – such as cell phones.

“On Verizon, I get my data alerts because I have two teenage children,” said Janet Besser, executive vice president of Northeast Clean Energy Council. “It says you’ve used 75 percent of your data, you’ve used 80 percent, you’ve used 90 percent, you are out of data. I email my kids and say, the $15 overcharge is coming out of your pocket. . . . That’s the kind of information you need to provide to customers.”

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

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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