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This week, we begin in New Hampshire, where the mountains and forests make every day feel a little like vacation. Some residents may soon be able to get paid for agreeing to let their utility remotely turn up thermostats during summer periods of high stress on the grid—an idea that could save money and reduce harmful emissions.

I’m Dan Gearino, with news and analysis about the clean energy economy. Send questions and comments dan.gearino@insideclimatenews.org. Thanks for reading!


— Dan

How Utilities Are Putting ‘Smart' Thermostats to Work

Imagine a hot day. So hot the New England power grid can’t keep up with electricity demand. In a control room somewhere, a worker presses a few buttons that send a signal to thousands of wi-fi enabled thermostats to reduce air conditioning and allow the heat to rise a few degrees.

Before you raise concerns about Big Brother, I should note that this would be voluntary and participants would be compensated.

This is the idea, in a very early stage, being discussed by Eversource, New England’s largest energy provider, through its subsidiary Public Service of New Hampshire. I read about it in the Concord Monitor. (The proposal is still being finalized, so I don’t have any specifics to link to.)

We are getting into subject matter that causes many energy researchers to geek out: a set of policies related to “smart thermostats.” These Wi-Fi connected devices allow two-way communication between the consumer and the utility.

“Thermostats are definitely really interesting,” said Brenda Chew, senior manager for research at Smart Electric Power Alliance. “It’s probably the fact that it has this high potential for adoption from customers because they get really excited about it.”

The excitement stems from the way that saving energy can become a game for people with thermostats from Nest and other brands. Customers use the devices to track and manage their own energy use, and also to be part of the program that allows the utility remote control access.

Chew’s organization, a research nonprofit that works with member utilities on clean energy initiatives,
reports that 47 utilities used thermostat programs in 2017 to reduce customers’ energy use during times of high demand.

Right now, the programs are almost all small pilots. If approved by regulators, the one in New Hampshire would likely start with a few thousand households.

It may sound like a drag to allow someone to let your home heat up a bit more in the summer, but the community benefits are substantial. Electricity gets much more expensive during times of peak demand. If utilities can find ways to reduce the size of those peaks, it would cut electricity bills.

The environmental benefits also would be significant. If peak demand was lower and more controllable, companies could more quickly retire some of their oldest and dirtiest power plants.


I will be watching to see how this idea is received in New Hampshire, the “Live Free or Die State,” where residents are often skeptical of the government or companies coming into their homes. Stay tuned.

(Photo: Amanitamano/CC-BY-SA-2.0)
 

Maine Governor Seeks to End Power Line Stalemate

One of the most consuming clean energy debates in New England is about whether to build a high-capacity power line that would increase the flow of hydroelectric power from Quebec.

The debate often comes down to this: Would importing clean energy reduce demand for homegrown projects? And that’s before we even get to the main objection to transmission lines—that hardly anyone wants to see them in their backyard.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills has now made clear where she stands, endorsing a new compromise plan negotiated with developers of New England Clean Energy Connect. The line would run through about 150 miles of Maine and be a crucial connection between Quebec and the New England grid.

The agreement, or stipulation, contains new provisions designed to win support within the state, with $258 million for programs that include deployment of electric vehicle charging stations, money to help residents buy heat pumps, and aid for low-income utility customers.

“As the chief executive of the state, it is my responsibility to weigh the broad ramifications of proposals like this and judge whether it moves us forward,” Mills said in a statement. “Now that the project, substantially enhanced by this stipulation, targets benefits to Maine people, injects millions into our economy and is poised to create jobs, fund electric vehicles, reduce electricity costs, expand broadband access, and substantially reduce our carbon footprint, I believe this is a project that is, on balance, worth pursuing.”

The New England Clean Energy Connect proposal has existed in some form for a few years. Opponents of previous versions of the plan argued that Maine was being asked to host an eyesore of a power line that would deliver most of its benefits to Massachusetts.

The debate is another example of how difficult it is for developers to get approval to build transmission lines. As the country relies more on renewable energy, the grid will need more lines, and proposals to build lines often turn into epic battles.

The Maine plan still needs to be approved by state regulators. Mills’ decision to make a wholehearted endorsement shows some of what’s needed to break the stalemate.
 

What Did the ‘Bomb Cyclone’ Mean for Wind Energy?

Trees shook and windows rattled in the Midwest on Sunday as a wind storm moved across the region. So what did that mean for wind farms?

I expected a record-setter for wind energy generation, but it turned out to not even be a record for 2019 in MISO, the grid region that includes parts of the Midwest and South, including the wind heartland of Iowa and Minnesota.

The all-time record was 16.3 gigawatts, set Jan. 8 at 6:55 p.m. Eastern Time, according to MISO. That was more than 20 percent of overall electricity in the region at that time, which is a lot, considering it was happening at a time of day when demand is high.

Sunday’s “bomb cyclone” weather pattern was extremely windy, but with a lower peak for wind energy than last month.

(I also checked on the wind results for the PJM Interconnection grid region, which covers parts of the Midwest, South and Mid-Atlantic. The patterns were similar, only with the wind peaks hitting later as the weather system moved across the country.)

These patterns are important as more wind farms get built and grid operators learn how to plan for periods when wind is high, and when it’s low. It underscores the need for accurate weather forecasts. Grid operators knew that Sunday’s storm was going to be a doozy, and the system ran well, with damage almost completely limited to local power lines.
 

Figuring Out Arizona’s Energy Storage Bonanza

I was just finishing last week’s newsletter when Arizona Public Service announced plans to build 850 megawatts of battery storage, leaving me just enough time for a quick mention. This week, I want to dig into what this proposal may mean.

First, here’s how it breaks down:

  • 200 megawatts of storage added to existing solar arrays. Done by 2021.
     
  • 150 megawatts of new solar-plus-storage plants. These will help reduce use of gas-fired peaker plants. Done by 2021.
     
  • 500 more megawatts of storage (new solar-plus-storage plants and standalone storage) built by 2025. This is the least-defined part of the overall plan.
     

“It has a huge significance,” said Yayoi Sekine, an energy storage analyst for BloombergNEF. “While we had already seen APS committing to deploying some energy storage systems, this is an impressive scale. It definitely is the biggest utility announcement that we've so far seen in the U.S to date.”

I’m particularly interested in the 150 megawatts of projects that would help to reduce the need for gas-fired peaker plants. Gas peakers are significant sources of carbon emissions relative to their energy output, running for short stretches during times of high demand and sitting idle the rest of the time.


The 150 megawatts would consist of two projects and would have a combined 600 megawatt-hours of output on a single charge. This means they could run at full strength for four hours each.

The company also said it is signing a seven-year contract with a natural gas power plant to help serve peak needs. The upshot is that there is a backup if, for some reason, the battery systems aren’t able to do the job.

The contract for gas power is one indication of how APS is going into uncharted territory by using batteries for peaking. And, since these peaker projects will be up and running by 2021, we don’t have to wait long to see how this works.

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