2 Steps We Can Take Right Now to Modernize Pennsylvania’s Electric Grid

PowerLinesEach year, dozens of utilities across the U.S. embark on a complicated process called a “rate case.” Presented to a state public utility commission (PUC), a rate case is a utility’s pitch for higher electricity prices for customers. For most utilities, a rate case only happens once every several years. So, all sides argue for the rules of the road by which the utility will operate until the next rate case. A rate case is also where state and local governments, along with consumer and environmental advocacy groups, seek cleaner, cheaper, and more customer-friendly prices, products, and policies.

The Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission (PPUC) is currently hearing a rate case for Metropolitan Edison (Met-Ed), which serves 560,000 residential and commercial customers, and represents one of the Pennsylvania utility branches of Ohio-based mega company FirstEnergy. Last month, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) filed testimony in the case urging Pennsylvania to modernize its grid with both voltage optimization and customer data access. The PPUC should require Met-Ed to implement both programs so Pennsylvanians can benefit from a clean, modern electric grid.

Right-sizing voltage cuts cost, pollution

Voltage optimization enables a utility to send each customer the right amount of voltage. Think of it as “right-sizing” your electricity. Today, most utilities send customers more voltage than needed. Studies have shown customers routinely receive, on average, two to three percent higher voltage than needed to power their homes and businesses. Across an entire service area, this adds up to a lot of wasted electricity and unnecessary, harmful pollution from power plants. In short, using the right voltage is a proven way to save money and cut pollution.

Through a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Chicago-based ComEd found voltage optimization could eliminate 2,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity demand each year for less than 2 cents per kilowatt hour. That’s enough electricity to power 180,000 homes. Customer savings are estimated at $240 million a year, more than from ComEd’s other energy-efficiency programs.

FirstEnergy also received a $57 million DOE grant to test voltage optimization in Met-Ed’s service area. It reduced peak energy demand, saved electricity, and reduced line losses (electricity lost over transmission lines). But unlike ComEd, FirstEnergy abandoned the program, despite equipment already having been installed and ready to go. Even worse, FirstEnergy has not proposed to implement voltage optimization in Met-Ed’s rate case. EDF has been pushing FirstEnergy to use voltage optimization and we will not stop until it happens. As energy advocates (both environmental and consumer), we can encourage Pennsylvania to require it.

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Customers need energy data

Blocking customer access to their own electricity-use data stifles the economy. It’s hard for customers to know how much electricity they’re using (and how they’re using it) without easy, timely access to their energy data. It’s also hard for third-party companies, like app developers and smart home appliance manufacturers, to develop products that make energy management easier if customers are unable to grant electricity products access to their energy data.

Moreover, blocking customer access to their own electricity-use data stifles personal freedom: It’s been established that a customer owns her energy data. However, Met Ed doesn’t allow customers timely access to this data.

The next step in modernizing our grid so it can operate like an “energy internet” is for states to make this critical energy data easily accessible to and sharable by utility customers. This is why EDF is working with Mission:data, a national coalition of over 35 technology companies that work together for customer-friendly data access policies, to urge utilities across the country to adopt best practices around customer data access. As with voltage optimization, Met-Ed’s rate case misses the mark on this critical component as a new customer data access policy is nowhere to be found.

Better, smarter, cleaner

America’s electric grid is, undoubtedly, undergoing a transformation. We know it can and must be better, smarter, and cleaner. Proven technologies like voltage optimization are important pieces of a modern grid, and easy access to energy data will unlock further innovation and help connect customers to clean energy solutions. This is why Pennsylvania should ensure its citizens benefit from these programs, while they still have the chance to do so in Met-Ed’s rate case.

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