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‘Epic fail’: PUC decision on grid modernization sends advocates back to square one

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The system responsible for delivering electricity to your door is old – dating back about a century. The architects of that system weren’t thinking about rooftop solar, electric cars, or the climate crisis, topics that advocates today say the grid must take into account.

But the state’s seven-year foray into how to best update our system stopped short of requiring meaningful change, frustrating some who worked on the plan. They say an update is urgently needed: to allow for more clean energy, to make the grid more flexible, reliable, and participatory, and to make more information available about how we use energy.

The push for a modern grid is backed by an array of people and organizations in the state, from advocates of clean energy, such as Clean Energy New Hampshire, to environmental groups, including the Conservation Law Foundation.

Consumer Advocate Don Kreis has been active on the issue too, given the potential benefit for ratepayers to have more information and potentially more control over their energy usage. Cities like Lebanon have also been involved in the push to modernize the grid, where energy expert Clif Below is leading initiatives like community power to allow for more local control of electricity.

But some utilities are not eager to change the way that they do business – or to allow outsiders to weigh in on which investments in the electrical grid they should make. So when the Public Utilities Commission created a stakeholder group that would do that in May 2020, Eversource pushed back and asked the commission to reconsider. Unitil added its voice to that request.

“Eversource screamed bloody murder, and the PUC climbed under its desk,” Kreis said.

After putting the order on hold for nearly two years, the commission backed away from its 2020 decision in an order issued last week – wiping away the plan to require stakeholder input and punting on the question of how the state will handle grid modernization in the future. Eversource says it is committed to grid modernization as a way of providing safe, reliable service to its customers.

Coming nearly seven years after the commission first took up the issue, this was not the outcome some had hoped for. Kreis called it an “epic fail” and said it was a waste of time and money.

“I am frustrated indeed because you know who ends up paying for all this wasted time and energy? Ratepayers. Even if the whole thing comes out in the wash – no harm, no foul – somebody wasted a lot of money,” he said.

And for many climate activists and scientists hopeful about how electrification could reduce emissions, there is no time to lose.

Right now, utilities drive decisions about investments into the grid – something the February decision leaves intact. Instead, the order closes one docket, indicating that another one will be opened in the future to look at the same issue.

Nick Krakoff, a staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, said this moves the process back to square one, but it’s unclear how starting the process over now will be any different.

In contrast, the decision from 2020 would have given other stakeholders a seat at the table, a change Krakoff said would have been beneficial. He said utilities tend to want to expand distribution without an eye to modernizing for the future. In a written statement, a spokesperson for Eversource said the company is looking forward to the commission’s next steps in considering grid modernization and that it plans to be involved in the process.

“We’re working every day to ensure that the grid of the future can reliably meet the energy needs of our customers in a cost-effective manner, and how we can best facilitate the interconnection of new distributed energy resources (like rooftop solar) through grid modernization,” said Eversource spokesperson William Hinkle.

Krakoff and other advocates say modernizing the grid is a key part of increasing clean energy – shifting away from fossil fuels that emit carbon into the atmosphere and drive climate change and toward sources of power that are non-emitting.

That transition raises a lot of big questions, like how clean energy resources such as solar and wind are integrated and how to electrify areas that have been traditionally powered by fossil fuels, while not increasing the already high cost of electricity to ratepayers.

Chris Skoglund, Clean Energy New Hampshire’s new director of energy transition, said the decision was both a surprise and a disappointment.

Modernization is needed, according to Skoglund, because the grid was designed when power plants were centralized – but that’s changing, as people and businesses install solar panels or wind turbines, or as cities generate their own hydro power. Instead of a one-way street, power increasingly flows in two directions. And as electric cars become more common, battery storage increasingly enters the equation as well. Skoglund and others say that this can increase the reliability of the grid, and it can also be harnessed to lower the cost of electricity, since a battery could lower demand during a busy time of the day – when everyone gets home from work, for example.

“There are strong economic reasons to do it, and there are very strong environmental reasons (to modernize the grid),” Skoglund said.

He’s not talking about an insignificant change but a fundamental overhaul of how energy is distributed. Skoglund is optimistic that there are some small ways of addressing this big question – like having less expensive rates for charging an electric vehicle when there’s less demand for electricity, at night, for example, when most people are sleeping.

“We have climate change and technological change occurring hand-in-hand so that it requires that century-old system of electricity delivery to undergo changes that we need, basically, on the backend,” he said.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

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