Advocates seek energy usage data

By AMANDA GOKEE

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 06-01-2021 7:45 AM

HANOVER — When April Salas set out to acquire information about energy usage in Hanover, she was in for an uphill battle.

Salas is the sustainability director of the town, population 11,500, which has the resources to consider such a project. In 2018, Hanover decided to put together a program that would allow it to procure green and renewable energy. But to do that, officials needed townwide information about energy usage.

Liberty Utilities serves all but about 10 houses in town, which should have made things easier. But it took six months to wrangle the information.

“It was a nightmare,” Salas said.

The data that came in was a mess. There was no consistency in formatting, with data points scattered across spreadsheets and PDFs. Hanover ended up having to pay $30,000 to hire a consultant to sort through the data just so it would be usable.

Getting this essential information shouldn’t be so hard, Salas said. “It’s like fighting for your medical records,” she said. “Why make it so costly and hard to access something that I own and have a right to?”

That’s why Salas has joined other advocates in the state and beyond to push for the creation of a statewide energy data hub — so that standardized information from utilities and other energy providers can be aggregated and made accessible. 

The proposal, which is before the Public Utilities Commission, would be an important step toward making essential information about energy usage available.

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The Hanover project ultimately fell apart at the eleventh hour when Liberty Utilities told the town that the project would have to go through the company because of requirements that a utility provide certain information to the state about its customers.

“It shouldn’t be this hard and complicated,” said Salas, who has worked as an infrastructure systems analyst for almost two decades. Because it took six months to gather six months’ worth of data, Salas said it would be an impossible project to repeat — and that means the town would have no chance at updating the information.

But the information is required for almost any energy-related project, including those that save money, reduce usage, or provide consumers a choice in where their energy comes from.

“If Hanover can’t do this, where is the hope for the rest of the communities?” Salas said. Energy poverty is an issue in New Hampshire that leaves people struggling to afford high energy costs, she said.

After Salas realized that a piecemeal approach was unworkable even for towns with the most resources, she became a staunch proponent for reform.

Free the data

For any energy initiative, the first step is knowing how much energy is being used. Currently, providers figure this out by requesting PDF copies of old bills. The same thing is true at the community level.

But that involves some pretty large inefficiencies, and it can even prevent projects from moving forward at all, like in Hanover. And specific information about peak demand, behind the meter generation from solar panels, for instance, or where energy is being used can be hard, if not impossible, to determine.

Getting data out of utilities and into usable shape for an energy project often becomes an insurmountable barrier.

“Often projects fail getting past that hurdle, because getting data out of utilities systems is just too daunting,” said Ethan Goldman, the founder of Resilient Edge, who represented Clean Energy New Hampshire in this docket.

A statewide data platform would be the first step to solving the problem — and that’s what is currently up for consideration before the PUC. In a settlement agreement presented in May, three of the state’s largest utilities agreed to a plan that, if approved, would lead to a groundbreaking platform, allowing for the aggregation of essential information about energy usage.

The town of Hanover, Clean Energy New Hampshire, and the Office of the Consumer Advocate, among others, also worked on hammering out the details of the plan and signed on in support.

It would create a data hub — one unified system that would be used across the state. The state’s three largest utilities would feed information into the system initially, with the ability to include other energy providers in the future.

Third-party providers could then use this information to offer targeted energy services — like managing energy usage from a smartphone, a guaranteed bill, or more accurate pricing information.

Michael Murray, the president of Mission:data, a Seattle-based nonprofit that advocates for consumer access to energy data, compared the current system with going into a supermarket where there are no prices on any of the items for sale. At the end of the month, you’re presented with a big bill, but there are no tools or information to manage your spending.

Creating an energy data platform would bring the state a bit closer to a grocery store model — where prices are transparent and consumers have more control about what and how they’re spending.

Murray has been involved in dockets like this across the country, and he’s optimistic about the plan that has come together in New Hampshire. It’s relatively comprehensive compared to other states, which have taken a more piecemeal approach.

In Illinois, for example, Murray said there was a failure to describe all the types of data that a customer should be able to transfer to a third party of their choice.

“If you don’t specify that information at the front end, most likely you’re going to end up with a system that is subpar,” Murray said.

The proposal in New Hampshire includes a governance process for changes.

And New Hampshire also is looking at a single unified system that will span its three largest utilities — Unitil, Eversource, and Liberty. That can be a draw for third-party providers that are looking for places where it makes sense to expand, Murray said.

Recent studies show that savings from these energy services could range from 6% to 18% —  a significant savings for ratepayers, especially in New Hampshire, where energy costs are relatively high.


(This story is from the nonprofit online news site New Hampshire Bulletin.)

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