New Hampshire’s electric customers need a New Deal.
Yes, I’m talking about that New Deal — the one from the 1930s. When Congress adopted the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, the nation’s investor-owned utilities had simply refused to serve 70 percent of the continental U.S., consigning millions of Americans to a life of darkness and poverty because they were not in cities or suburbs. So, this hugely successful New Deal program led to the establishment of rural electric cooperatives — customer-owned utilities like the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative, which continues to this day as a democratically controlled organization that exists exclusively to serve customers rather than profit-seeking shareholders.
Today the electric industry is again in a crisis in which there is reason to doubt the ability of investor-owned firms to meet customer needs. Unlike the 1930s, when the challenge was universal service, today the problem is an industry that is unable to help consumers take full advantage of sweeping technological change.
Distributed generation is the most troubling example. Solar panels are now cheap enough to produce that many consumers can afford to acquire them to self-generate and feed excess production back into the grid. But the utilities regard this as an existential threat to their business model and, even worse, many solar companies peddle bad deals to consumers while marketing themselves as virtuous because solar power is renewable energy. If you rent rather than own your home, or if you’re in a shady spot, you’re mostly out of luck.
Energy efficiency is another problem. The cheapest kilowatt-hour (kwh) is the one we avoid using. But we insist on relying on the utilities to deliver that efficiency, which is the equivalent of paying McDonald’s to help people eat fewer Quarter Pounders. We are leaving lots of cost-effective energy efficiency unrealized.
Home energy management is also a pressing but unmet need. Technology exists to allow residential customers to save money by operating appliances, air conditioners, furnaces and other devices when wholesale power is plentiful. But investor-owned utilities are reluctant to offer such services to consumers and other providers tend to focus on bigger, commercial users of electricity.
And then there is competitive energy supply. In New Hampshire, customers are free to choose any electricity supplier they want, relying on the utility to provide just the poles and wires. But suppliers are either uninterested in serving small customers or, worse, offer plans that are reminiscent of the worst excesses practiced by unscrupulous (and unregulated) cable and phone providers. Aggregators can pool the demand of lots of small customers, but nothing assures they will act in the best interests of those customers.
Imagine a cooperative — a business owned by and accountable to its customers — to provide all of these services to electric ratepayers. The New Hampshire Electric Cooperative cannot legally expand in this fashion. But the state’s consumer cooperative statute — under which the food co-ops in Hanover, Lebanon, Concord, New London, Littleton and Keene operate — can accommodate energy services cooperatives.
You may say I’m a dreamer, but Co-op Power in Massachusetts and Cooperative Energy Futures in Minnesota are thriving examples of what I have in mind. Both are particularly attuned to serving low-income consumers, who tend to get left behind as technology evolves and opportunity breeds complexity. New Hampshire consumers have the right to seize control of how they use the electricity grid; the best way to make that happen is for them to pool their resources and cooperate.
[Published in the Valley News, July 14, 2016]