Power to the People is a column by D. Maurice Kreis, New Hampshire’s Consumer Advocate. Kreis and his staff of four represent the interests of residential utility customers before the NH Public Utilities Commission and elsewhere.
D. MAURICE KREIS, N.H. Consumer Advocate
Ever so quietly, a battle for the soul of New Hampshire’s electricity grid is raging.
Laying siege to the state’s three investor-owned electric utilities – Eversource, Unitil, and Liberty – is a guerrilla outfit that is operating under the innocuous banner of “Local Government Coalition,” LGC. The scene is the Public Utilities Commission (PUC).
Except that it’s not the PUC, exactly, but a PUC docket. The term “docket” dates back to Merry Olde Englande of the 15th Century, possibly related to the verb “to dock” in the sense of cutting something short by way of summary. Here, it just means a matter that is currently open for consideration at the agency.
And in this instance the battle is roaring via the process known as “discovery” – basically, the exchange of information among parties to a PUC proceeding, ostensibly to allow everyone to gather evidence for use at the hearing that in this instance is scheduled for February.
At issue is whether there should be a statewide, centralized data “platform” that customers can use to access their usage data and, more importantly, share that data with non-regulated service providers. The Legislature endorsed that idea last year and told the PUC to open a proceeding to figure it all out.
Response to this idea from utilities has been lukewarm at best. The LGC came together to fight for the data platform in the face of intransigence and opposition.
Who are these LGC warriors? They are Amro Farid, a professor at Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering; April Salas, Chief Sustainability Officer for the Town of Hanover and Executive Director of the Revers Center for Energy at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business;
Samuel Golding, the Concord-based proprietor of a consulting firm, Community Choice Partners; Kat McGhee, a state representative from Hollis who serves on the House committee that deliberates on electricity-related bills; and Clifton Below, assistant mayor of Lebanon, who before that served as a PUC Commissioner and before that served as a state Senator and before that served as a state Representative when he co-authored New Hampshire’s electric industry restructuring act adopted in 1996.
The monopoly-smashing1996 legislation was supposed to open up the electricity grid to robust competition and dynamic innovation. So, when the questions are why so little of that competition or innovation has happened, and what to do about it, Below speaks with particular authority.
It’s possible, Below said in response to a question from platform-skeptical Eversource and Unitil, that the General Court passed the data platform bill last year “to express frustration with the lack of progress by the Commission and utilities in realizing the purposes and potential” of the 1996 restructuring act. “So, taking matters more directly into their own authority, they have interceded to try to accelerate progress.”
If Below embodies the history of electric industry restructuring legislation, McGhee may be its future. She co-sponsored the data platform bill and was its lead champion in the House. She has a background in information technology and has been deploying it to great effect for the LGC. Frankly, I doubt her constituents in Hollis even know about this important and nonpartisan work, which is all the more remarkable when you consider that she is in a tough reelection fight.
Responding to a question from Eversource and Unitil, McGhee explained in concrete terms exactly why the data platform should go forward.
“The Chair of my town’s energy committee,” said McGhee, “has been diligently working to provide cost benefit analysis on solar investments to our elementary school rooftops for years. The Energy Committee is at a loss trying to get the information to quantify savings to our Board.
“The folks on our energy committee are technical, competent and work regularly with the utilities,” McGhee continued. “But the system is not automated – so they are forced to work on manual data dumps from disparate sources and the results are still not sufficiently comprehensive to illustrate the entire picture needed to show their homework to the town selectman and budget committee.
“This is among the consumer problems an automated energy data hub is intended to address,” McGhee concluded. “They should be able to have access to their own data and be able to make sense of it.”
As a relatively new arrival to the New Hampshire energy scene, Samuel Golding is the LGC’s secret weapon. He helped create community power aggregation (CPA) plans for a bunch of communities in California. A CPA municipality buys wholesale electricity on behalf of its residents, ideally as part of a comprehensive energy strategy calculated to save ratepayers money and achieve other policy objectives like decarbonization. CPA was only fully authorized in New Hampshire via a bill adopted last year.
“New Hampshire has failed to extend the benefits of restructuring to the mass market, its current active retail market evinces a high degree of market concentration (never a good sign), and the metrics by which one could properly assess the level of innovation and barriers to fully animating choice at a granular level remain wholly untracked,” Golding warned in his written responses to the discovery questions from Eversource and Unitil.
Like his LGC colleagues, Golding regards the creation of the statewide utility customer data platform as a crucial tool for delivering the benefits of restructuring, at long last, to that “mass market,” by which he means, essentially, residential customers. And he considers governance of the platform to be the key question for the PUC to resolve.
Specifically, Golding believes that stakeholders – i.e., customers, CPAs and unregulated companies seeking to provide services to them – should govern the platform and the utilities should not. Even though the statute tasks the utilities with owning and operating the platform, he considers their business interests as inimical to competition and innovation.
“To put it bluntly: until we get governance right, I fear we will all be condemned to endlessly repaving the road to hell with our good intentions,” Golding warned.
You may or may not agree with Golding and his fellow LCG warriers. But their written discovery responses are both spicy and consequential – and every word of it publicly available for those who know their right to inspect public documents under the Right-to-Know Law.