The early results of a New Hampshire battery storage pilot are being widely hailed, but it remains unclear whether the program will be expanded to test new models and new ways of benefiting consumers.
The New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission issued an order Wednesday declaring that the first 20 months of the pilot, run by Liberty Utilities, met its goals. The order requires the company to file a new proposal by May 30 for how it will continue, modify, or expand its pilot program.
Liberty Utilities in November released a report finding that the first phase of its battery storage pilot, in which the utility provided batteries to 96 homes, yielded significant cost savings for participants and effectively discharged power into the grid during periods of peak demand.
“I am extremely enthusiastic about the pilot and would like to see it continue to thrive and even expand,” said Donald Kreis, New Hampshire’s consumer advocate on energy issues.
Getting batteries off the ground
Battery storage technology is becoming increasingly popular for its potential to lower costs, reduce carbon emissions, and improve resilience in the face of power outages. But a widespread, coordinated deployment of batteries to maximize the benefits is still in its early days. The New Hampshire pilot is the first such effort in the state and could therefore provide a model for future deployments.
The idea for the pilot program was first introduced in 2017. Liberty Utilities, which serves a small territory on the western edge of the state, proposed buying 1,000 batteries and deploying them in the homes of volunteers. The utility would also institute time-of-use pricing, allowing participants to charge their batteries at a lower cost during periods of lower demand, then use the less expensive stored power to offset their use when prices were higher, resulting in net cost savings. The stored power would also be available in case of power outages.
Liberty, however, would retain the right to control the batteries when a period of peak demand was expected. The utility would be able to discharge the batteries in the pilot to the grid when demand was highest, reducing costs and passing those savings on to ratepayers.
Liberty would charge participants a monthly fee, and also spread out some of the cost among its entire base of ratepayers.
Shaving costs and emissions
Many advocates agreed that the idea was promising, not just financially, but environmentally as well. When the demand for electricity from the grid goes up, it becomes necessary to bring online power sources that are more expensive and more emissions-intensive. Using stored power during times of highest demand can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by lowering the need for this pricier, dirtier energy — especially when batteries are charged using solar panels or power is drawn from the grid at off-peak times, such as overnight.
“High cost and high emissions are very closely correlated,” said Sam Evans-Brown, executive director of Clean Energy New Hampshire. “Any savings on those peak events should have the potential to avoid a lot of emissions, because those are the dirtiest times of year for the New England grid.”
Still, many stakeholders — including municipal leaders, environmental and consumer advocates, and renewable energy businesses — wanted to see changes to Liberty’s proposal. Some wanted to see firmer plans for customer education and others wanted a commitment to create a similar rate structure for non-residential customers. Several parties argued that the pilot should include opportunities for homeowners to provide their own batteries in order to analyze which ownership structure yielded the most benefits.
A year of debate and negotiation among stakeholders ensued before a settlement was agreed upon: Liberty would launch the first phase of the pilot including at least 100 and up to 200 batteries, with two batteries to be installed in each participating house. After 18 months, if the first phase met its goals for consumer savings and accuracy in discharging batteries to meet peak demand, the utility would be able to move on to a second phase, in which homeowners would acquire and own their own batteries. The settlement was approved in early 2019.
The report released late last year looks at the first 21 months of phase one and concludes it exceeded the targets set for moving on to the second phase. On average, participants saved 33% on their monthly electricity bills and the system was 79% accurate in discharging during peak demand.
What’s next for the battery program?
Despite these results, it is uncertain when — or if — Liberty will roll out plans for the second phase of the pilot.
Liberty will submit a proposal by the end of May, as required by the utilities commission, “but we don’t know what that proposal will look like at this time,” said Heather Tebbetts, director of business development for Liberty Utilities.
Some stakeholders, however, would like to see a more decisive move toward a bring-your-own-device program in order to nurture competition in the growing storage sector and to maximize benefits for ratepayers. Adding more choices to the market, they contend, could lower costs as the market takes hold in New Hampshire.
“Liberty did not exactly give a full-throated indication that it was going to move boldly forward with phase two, and I find that disappointing,” said Kreis, the consumer advocate. “I don’t think we should create or sanction a monopoly where no natural monopoly exists.”
Evans-Brown of Clean Energy New Hampshire is also a strong advocate for expanding the pilot to include consumer-owned batteries. In the cost-benefit analysis of the first phase, he noted, a significant portion of the cost comes from the utility ownership of the batteries. The report found that every dollar spent in the first phase yielded 99 cents in benefits. Allowing homeowners to bring their own devices could add even more to the benefits side of that equation, Evans-Brown said.
“You might be able to do it for less and there might be more benefits for ratepayers,” he said. “But we won’t know until we run that experiment.”
Evans-Brown has been in touch with Liberty and other stakeholders and is optimistic that a second phase including a bring-your-own-device component will come to pass. Liberty, he said, is “the most forward-thinking investor-owned utility in the state.”
Some in the field, however, think further pilots are unnecessary. Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont already have bring-your-own-device programs up and running, said Chris Rauscher, senior director of market development and policy at national solar and storage company Sunrun. There is no need, he said, for New Hampshire to test out concepts that are already working in the field.
“We firmly believe they should stop doing pilots altogether and just create a permanent bring-your-own-device program,” Rauscher said. “I don’t really see the need for pilots.”
There is, however, widespread agreement on the need to pursue a bring-your-own-device model in order to maximize the benefits of growing interest in battery storage for consumers and electric infrastructure.
“There are people who are ready to buy those batteries and we should be putting these batteries to use for the grid,” Evans-Brown said.