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New England utilities plan data platform to make it easier to calculate energy savings


New England utilities plan data platform to make it easier to calculate energy savings

May 09, 2024 | 5:00 am ET
By Annie Ropeik, Energy News Network
New England utilities plan data platform to make it easier to calculate energy savings
Energy providers Unitil, Eversource, and Liberty Utilities are working with several subsidiaries and state groups and agencies to propose the new data platform to the U.S. Department of Energy's Grid Resilience and Innovation Partnerships (GRIP) grant program. (Getty Images)

A group of New England utilities plans to seek federal funding for a regional energy data platform that would make it easier for consumers and contractors to estimate potential savings from efficiency upgrades or new electric technologies.

Clean energy advocates see this kind of service as key to supporting the rollout of Inflation Reduction Act rebates and, more broadly, to controlling costs and demand on a lower-carbon power grid.

Energy providers Unitil, Eversource, and Liberty Utilities are working with several subsidiaries and state groups and agencies to propose the new data platform to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Grid Resilience and Innovation Partnerships (GRIP) grant program, created by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Their $29 million data hub concept, with half the funding requested from the Department of Energy, builds off a similar state-level platform that’s been in the works in New Hampshire since 2019. Proponents say federal funding is needed in part to encourage that state’s regulators to give final approval for the project.

Launched over the next four years, the regional data hub would provide standardized access to “very minute usage information” for millions of gas and electric customers and third-party service providers in New Hampshire, Connecticut, Maine, and Massachusetts, according to Unitil.

“With this data more readily available, customers could better understand their energy consumption, which would help them make decisions about energy conservation steps they may want to take at home or in the workplace,” Unitil said in a statement. “For instance, the information could be used to obtain a price quote from a rooftop solar provider, a competitive supplier to receive a price estimate, or a storage provider to determine the appropriate size of behind-the-meter battery storage.”

‘An incredibly silly manual process’

Multi-utility data platforms currently exist in Texas and New York, both states with unified electric grids, proponents said – but in New England and many other places, customers’ data access is inconsistent.

In a concept paper on their data hub proposal filed with the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission earlier this year, the Northeast utilities say costs for efficiency projects and clean energy upgrades, known as distributed energy resources or DERs, can be inflated by the “idiosyncratic processes” and “bespoke electronic interfaces” needed to work with each customer’s data.

“Today, DER providers pay as much as $300,000 annually for screen-scraping programs to extract customer electric data from bill PDFs, while others install monitoring packages with their solar and storage applications that are functionally duplicative of the utility’s advanced meters, driving up costs by $15,000 or more per installation,” the proposal says.

To estimate cost savings in a quote for rooftop solar, for example, a homeowner may have to provide a year’s worth of paper or electronic bills for their prospective installer to compile and analyze by hand – an “incredibly silly manual process,” said Sam Evans-Brown, the executive director of Clean Energy New Hampshire, a nonprofit that’s participating in the regional data hub proposal.

“And that’s just the single homeowner level – think about a multi-family housing project, where you have 40, 50, a hundred units, each with their own electric bill,” he said. “It’s just a total nightmare.”

An automated system would access customers’ data on demand in a standardized format and could spit out expected project savings at essentially the push of a button, he said. Contractors he’s spoken with, he said, call this approach “transformational for the way that we interact with customers.”

The data hub could also support energy dashboards, especially for environmental justice areas, to help visualize progress toward climate targets with a goal of “reducing the energy burden for historically disadvantaged communities,” said Eversource spokesperson Sarah Paduano in a statement.

“By breaking down the walls of historically utility-housed and owned data, Unitil believes this would remove a significant barrier for a variety of stakeholders that would be able to leverage the data in a meaningful way and towards advancing an equitable clean energy transition,” Unitil’s statement said.

Data for a more responsive grid

Estimated savings from individual energy projects aren’t just nice to have, said Michael Murray, president of Mission Data Coalition, another nonprofit working on the hub project – they are often required. Certain Inflation Reduction Act rebates are only offered to projects that can prove at least a 20 percent energy savings.

“The legislation was really intended to be the first sort of fusion between making an efficiency project a smart grid asset,” Murray said. “It’s no longer just, ‘efficiency is in its own silo and all you care about is annual energy savings.’ The question is, how does it become interactive and part of a ‘virtual power plant’ kind of concept?”

Better data on individual projects could help customers access savings from new rate designs that incentivize less usage at times of peak demand, the proposal says, improving resilience and lowering costs on a more variable, renewables-powered grid.

“Energy data is increasingly going to become the currency of a modern grid,” said Evans-Brown. “It’s really difficult to manage our peaks if you have no idea where they’re coming from, like what’s causing them all the way down to the consumer level.”

Without standardized, streamlined access to energy data, Murray said, contractors trying to work with IRA rebates in states that choose to offer them will face a costly and time-consuming burden of iterating individualized manual processes thousands of times.

“(The IRA) is going to touch millions of American homes. Each one of these is multiple data requests and processing. And so we need to figure out a way to do it in a streamlined way,” he said. Otherwise, “all that federal money gets drained into stupid overhead as opposed to actually delivering value for people.”

Not every New England state or utility is participating in the grant proposal. Connecticut-based Avangrid, with subsidiaries like Central Maine Power or CMP, is one that declined to join.

CMP received a $30 million GRIP grant in the program’s first round last year for technology to reduce the frequency and impact of power outages, and plans to seek additional GRIP funding on its own this year.

“Our decision for round two was to focus on reliability and load capacity grid improvement projects in Maine, particularly those that impact disadvantaged communities,” said spokesperson Jon Breed in a statement. “We are aware of the concept of the Regional Joint Utility Energy Data Hub and will be monitoring the performance of the program if it receives funding.”

For Murray, the long-term goal is a data platform that covers the entire territory of ISO-New England, the six states’ regional grid manager. He said utilities – and their customers – that don’t get on board, if the project moves forward, could risk becoming siloed and left behind in older systems.

“The whole industry is moving towards an automated system, which New Hampshire is building,” he said. “That’s where we ultimately need to go.”

This article first appeared on Energy News Network and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.