The utility industry has a reputation for being stodgy and slow to innovate and change. Yet one of its main regulators is quite different. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has often taken the lead when it comes to embracing technology and adopting new ways of connecting with the public. From electronic filing to webcasts of public meetings, the FERC seemed to be an early adopter. Last month, FERC did it again with the launch of “Open Access,” the podcast series. According to host Craig Cano, the goal is

“to have a conversation about FERC, what it does and how that can affect you. FERC can get very legal and very technical, so we will strive to keep it simple.”

The podcast begins by explaining what FERC does:

“… oversees the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas and oil. FERC’s authority also includes review of proposals to build interstate natural gas pipelines and liquefied natural gas terminals, and licensing of nonfederal hydropower projects. FERC protects the reliability of the high-voltage interstate transmission system through mandatory reliability standards and it monitors interstate energy markets to ensure that everyone in those markets is playing by the rules.”

In the first episode, Mary O’Driscoll of FERC talks with Charles Curtis, the first chairman of the FERC. They take a walk down memory lane where I learned the good ole days were not always so good. The former commissioner states,

“The Federal Power Commission, before it, was a commission in significant disarray. It had a decisional process that assigned the Commission about 22,000 decisions per year, and it had a backlog of some 20 to 25 years of matters awaiting decision of the Commission.”

Ouch, I can’t imagine any business waiting that long for adjudication.

In the second episode, Ms. O’Driscoll connects us with then-commissioner Tony Clark, who reflects on his time at the Commission as he prepared to leave at the end of September 2016. Former commissioner Clark served one term at FERC, having been nominated by President Obama and sworn in on June 15, 2012. Prior to that, he served 12 years as a member of the North Dakota Public Service Commission, including a term as its president. With this being one of the most lethal presidential elections since I have been voting, it is refreshing to hear former commissioner Clark discuss FERC’s nonpartisan approach:

“When you’re talking about something as important as energy, which is critical to the safety and well-being of the nation’s economy and our people, you want to have decisions that are made in a nonpartisan, nonpolitical way. … You may disagree from time to time with commissioners on a certain issue, but it tends to not be political. It is often said around here there’s not a Republican way or a Democrat way to keep the lights on. So I think that nonpartisan nature of it makes it easy to work with people in good faith. Over the four-plus years that I’ve been here it would be difficult to find any particular pattern in terms of vote. Here was a coalition of commissioners that always voted together and here is the other side that voted together in a bloc on certain things. It never worked that way. And I think the key is you have to maintain a degree of collegiality and respect.”

Wow! The house, the senate and candidates should take note! You can listen to both episodes here.

Utilities service territories are unique in many ways, including geography and culture. Despite the differences, there are benefits gained from studying the experiences of peers. Voices of Experience|Insights on Smart Grid Customer Engagement provides practical advice from utilities that have implemented smart grid projects to educate and engage their customers. It’s an effort to capture the industry’s knowledge regarding customer engagement related to smart grid deployment. While the guide may lean towards advanced metering infrastructure, the principals and insights apply to a much broader perspective, including engaging customers for dynamic pricing programs, demand response programs, distribution automation and other technology, such as home area network (HAN) devices. The guide is practical, often providing links to detailed examples actually implemented by utilities. As a contributor, I am partial: The guide is a must read for utilities involved in smart grid deployment.

From energy storage to distribution automation, there are many things we can do to make the electric grid smarter. However, focusing on technology while overlooking the little things would be a big miss, or the equivalent to “air conditioning the entire neighborhood” as my mother would say when demanding I shut the door. Just in time for the holidays, DOE has released the Twelve Days of Energy Savings. It is a back to basics list of things we can do to be smarter energy consumers. Below is a view of some of the days. Warning: Take the advice for yourself. I have never wanted a home energy audit as a gift!  

Day 2: Install a Programmable Thermostat

Don’t pay for warm air that you aren’t using. By installing and setting a programmable thermostat, you can save money on your energy bills — lowering your thermostat 10-15 degrees for 8 hours can save 5-15 percent a year on heating bills. If you are traveling this holiday, be sure to program your thermostat for energy savings.

Day 3: Maintain Your Fireplace

It isn’t the holidays without a crackling fire, but don’t let your energy bills go up with the smoke. Proper chimney maintenance — like sealing your fireplace flue damper, caulking around your hearth, and installing tempered glass doors and a heat-air exchange system to blow warmed air back into the room — will help keep warm air in your house and cold air out.

Day 4: Prepare Your Windows for Winter

Before you curl up on the couch in front of the window this holiday season, be sure to take steps to reduce heat loss. Weatherizing your windows can reduce drafts, and installing storm windows can cut heat loss through your windows by 25-50 percent. Explore more tips for saving energy on your windows.

National Grid recently received the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities’ approval to begin a two year comprehensive smart grid pilot. An important element of the pilot is the company’s focus on customer outreach and education. Cited as its “listen, test, and learn” approach, National Grid will use a variety of different communication channels, both traditional and community-based, to attempt to elicit customer behavior changes and gain valuable insights regarding options for larger deployment of smart grid tools and technologies.

A noted feature of the outreach plan will be a Sustainability Hub located near Clark University.

Leveraging college student interns through the co-op program and partnerships with vendors and community stakeholders, the Sustainability Hub will provide hands-on community access to smart grid technology and information regarding pricing structures offered in the pilot.

National Grid intends to evaluate:

  1. the effects of each media channel, such as print, web, mobile, electronic, social, and broadcast media;
  2. the number of attempts to reach each customer;
  3. the timing of messaging;
  4. the effects of targeted messaging (e.g., environmental, cost consciousness);
  5. the effect of messaging through in-home devices;
  6. customer satisfaction, interest, and behavior; and
  7. the effectiveness of the critical peak event notices.

In approving the plan, the MDPU found a two-year pilot could help access “customer fatigue” and allow for more robust results and analysis, as well as provide useful insight to help inform future smart grid development.

Two years after providing approval to Florida Power and Light to install smart meters, the Florida Public Service Commission has decided to have a public workshop regarding the devices due to public outcry. Scheduled for September 20, 2012, the workshop will give the public the opportunity to provide comments regarding smart meters. The Commission has also directed its staff to gather additional insight about the technology, policies, jurisdiction, costs and benefits of smart meters. The information will be compiled and brought back to the Commissioners for further discussion. In its quest for information, the utility is asking some very good questions that any utility seeking smart meter deployment should be addressing. Below are the documents requested in Smart Meter Data
Request #1

30. Please provide copies of any material(s) given to customers on smart meters.

31. Please provide any call center scripts on smart meters or smart meter opt-out.

32. Please provide any materials given to customers in response to their concerns about the health effects from smart meters.

33. Please provide the procedures for smart meter installation used by either the utility or contractors.

34. Please provide copies of any FCC regulations that smart meters must comply with.

My view is that public workshops and smart grid education in general are a great idea. Extensive consumer engagement has been a lesson learned the hard way for the trailblazers in an industry where consumer education is typically providing regulatory notices and bill inserts. For some reason, the smart meter is different and more is required. Given the ease with which information is available today, if utilities don’t educate their customers, someone else will. While the magnitude and message need to be balanced with the deployment schedule, I am of the general view that education should precede installation.

Green Button is an industry-led effort that allows electricity customers to download their household or building energy-use data in a consumer- and computer-friendly format. PaPUC Chairman Powelson and Commissioner Witmer recently issued a statement encouraging Pennsylvania electric utilities not already involved to take part in this important initiative that empowers customers. Green-Button-enabled web and smartphone applications promise to help consumers choose the most economical rate plan for their use patterns. With this information at their fingertips, consumers would be enabled to make more informed decisions about their energy use and, when coupled with opportunities to take action, be empowered to more actively manage their energy use. Furthermore, making this information available in standardized file format will help spur innovative new consumer applications and devices. Here are just a few ways the Green Button might be put to use today:

  • Insight: entrepreneur-created web portals to analyze usage and provide actionable tips;
  • Heating and Cooling: customizing thermostats for savings and comfort;
  • Education: community and student energy efficiency competitions;
  • Retrofits: improved decision-support tools to facilitate energy efficiency retrofits;
  • Verification: measurement of structural energy efficiency investments;
  • Real Estate: energy costs for tenants and/or new home purchasers; and
  • Solar: optimizing the size of rooftop solar panels.

Currently, the following 15 utility providers formally support Green Button:

Facebook, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Opower along with 16 utilities recently launched a social energy app to help customers become more energy efficient. Leveraging the Facebook platform, the app allows people to quickly and easily start benchmarking their home’s energy usage against similar homes, compare energy use with friends, enter energy-saving competitions and share tips on how to become more energy efficient. With an initial reach of 20 million households, the effort is one of the most significant to date, enabling people to take action and become more energy efficient.

Although anyone can use the app by logging in with a Facebook account, customers within the 16 participating utilities’ territories listed below will be able to take advantage of the app’s “Utility Connect” feature, allowing customers to choose to have their energy use automatically update each month. These utilities and energy providers include:

  • Austin Utilities (Minnesota)
  • Burbank Water & Power
  • ComEd
  • Connexus Energy
  • Consumers Energy
  • Direct Energy (coming soon in 2012)
  • Glendale Water & Power
  • Loveland Water and Power
  • National Grid (New York and Massachusetts)
  • New Jersey Natural Gas (coming in 2012)
  • Owatonna Public Utilities
  • Pacific Gas and Electric Company
  • City of Palo Alto Utilities
  • PPL Electric Utilities Corp.
  • Rochester Public Utilities
  • Utilities District of Western Indiana REMC

Hey, where is my utility?! Okay, I am feeling left out of the coolest thing to hit the energy scene. Hopefully the list of participating utilities will expand. With the growing need for energy efficiency and customer engagement by utilities, this product is a home run…just in time for Opening Day!

Last spring researchers at Zpryme Research & Consulting, LLC released a study on the New Energy Customer. The data provides great insight to help utilities engage customers as we all move forward with the smart grid. A few highlights include:

  • 70% of home owners and 66.8% of renters rated their utility as good or outstanding.
  • The highest-rated potential benefit of the smart grid was saving money; the biggest concern was the cost to build it.
  • 94% of all respondents said it was important for utilities to have the most advanced communications technology to increase energy efficiency and prevent power outages; however, only 22% said they wouldn’t mind paying slightly higher rates over a short time period to fund such technology for utilities.

It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words and that is certainly true regarding the amazing graphics that accompany this report:  

Considering all the potential benefits of the Smart Grid, what policies are needed to help it succeed? That’s the question addressed in A Policy Framework for the 21st Century Grid: Enabling Our Secure Energy Future, a new report developed by a special White House subcommittee. The Federal Government, building on the policy direction set forth in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 and the Recovery Act’s historic investments in innovation, offers this policy framework to chart a path forward on the imperative to modernize the grid to take advantage of opportunities made possible by modern information, energy, and communications technology. This framework is premised on four pillars:

  1. Enabling cost-effective smart grid investments
  2. Unlocking the potential for innovation in the electric sector
  3. Empowering consumers and enabling them to make informed decisions
  4. Securing the grid

Each pillar supports a set of policy recommendations that focus on how to facilitate a smarter and more secure grid. Progress in all four areas, as part of an overall grid modernization effort, will require sustained cooperation between the private sector, state and local governments, the Federal Government, consumer groups, and other stakeholders. The report describes how the pillars will assist in promoting benefits of the smart grid:

  1. Scale what works to enable cost-effective smart grid investments
  2. Unlock the innovation potential in the electricity sector with a continued focus on open standards
  3. Empower consumers with education, access to their own energy usage information in   consumer- and computer-friendly formats, and improved privacy safeguards and consumer protections
  4. Continue to secure the grid against natural or other disasters.

The White House believes advancement of the four pillars plays an essential role in helping the United States to lead the world in the 21st century economy.

On May 19, 2011, after taking into consideration all public correspondence and filings, the Maine Public Utilities Commission issued a Part 1 Order requiring Central Maine Power to implement an opt out program. What is interesting about the order is that it seems to go beyond addressing the RF issues and requires more than what is necessary to comfort those customers with smart meter health concerns. As stated in its press release, CMP will provide residential and small commercial customers with four choices:

  1. the default smart meter which will become the standard meter in CMP territory;
  2. the ability to select a smart meter with the transmitter-off;
  3. the ability to keep the customer’s existing analog meter; or,
  4. the ability to move the new smart meters elsewhere on their property at the customer’s expense.

This decision seems to be a long way from the Commission’s order in February 2010 where the Commission approved this very same CMP AMI program  that is now the subject of an opt out order that not only provides for the transmitter to be off, but even requires CMP to keep in use analog meters. In February 2010, the Commission stated that CMP’s AMI program would, “improve customer service, enhance storm restoration efforts, reduce utility operational costs, save ratepayer and utility costs, and ultimately provide customers with necessary tools to use electricity more efficiently.”  It will be interesting to see the extent of the anticipated reduction in utility operational costs as CMP maintains the systems and networks to support both analog and smart meters.

In Maine the Commission can issue an order in two parts. The first providing the decision and the latter providing the background, analyses and reasoning underlying the Commission’s decision. I’m looking forward to reading the Part II Order to see if it addresses my questions after reading the Part I Order:

  • What happens when people move? It is possible that customers will relocate within and outside of CMP’s service territory. At some point, radio off customers will move into transmitter on homes or analog metered homes and vice versa.  Who pays for the administrative and operational cost of what will eventually become  an opt-in and opt-out mosaic with two subparts?
  • Can CMP’s customers relocating within Maine but outside of CMP’s service territory expect to have the same opt-out option at their new home?
  • Why have an opt-out option when the FCC and FDA have approved the smart meters for use?
  • Analog? Really? When the analog meters are ready for replacement will CMP be required to purchase analog meters for the chosen few 10 or 15 years down the road? Admittedly, functional yet used meters should be on sale as other utilities abandon analog just like the FCC did with our television transmission.

The costs to customers for the various options will be:

  1. For the electro-mechanical meter option: an initial, one-time charge of $40.00 and a recurring monthly charge of $12.00
  2. For the standard wireless “smart meter” with the NIC operating in receive-only mode: an initial, one-time charge of $20.00 and a recurring monthly charge of $10.50
  3. For any customer that does not enroll in the opt-out program within the 30 period specified above and later chooses to do so: a $25.00 surcharge. CMP may waive the surcharge if it determines there is a sufficient reason for the customer’s failure to notify CMP within the 30-day period

I suggest realtors in Maine begin to prepare new disclosure forms to alert potential buyers to the home’s level of smartness.