PORTLAND, Maine — There’s a smartphone app that tells you how much power generators are charging in New England, minute-by-minute. It’s a level of detail that doesn’t exist on a power bill.
But independent Sen. Angus King of Maine said he sees dynamic pricing as an inevitable result of changes in technology and a proliferation of power generated by households using solar panels and other technologies.
“It’s going to happen, whether people like it or not,” King said.
This week, the senator put forward a bill he hopes will be included as part of a bipartisan energy proposal being assembled by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. The package aims to give some structure to discussions about distributed power generation, which would mix residential and business power sources with electricity from regional power plants.
Those discussions already are under way in Maine, in various cases before the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
Earlier this year, the PUC presented the Legislature with a study assessing the specific value of solar power to the grid, including a variety of factors such as environmental benefits.
King’s bill would direct state utilities regulators to begin studying how to value a range of such resources — from renewables, fuel cells, energy storage, diesel generators and others — and how to set fees for allowing a homeowner to connect those generators to the grid, a concept for which he hopes to garner political support, not just from renewables boosters.
“There’s also a kind of personal sovereignty issue here,” King said during a phone interview. “Two weeks ago, a national member of the Tea Party Patriots came to our office and said they are 100 percent with us, that you should have an individual right to make your own power.”
The bill would give states a choice to start studying dynamic pricing for distributed generation and appointing a company to coordinate the effort, according to a draft of the bill provided by King’s office.
Maine is in the middle of considering doing that, after a bid from the Portland-based company GridSolar to become the state’s “smart-grid coordinator.” The PUC turned down that designation for the company in a 2-1 vote, seeking to open bids for that designation to other parties, including electric utilities.
GridSolar has a pilot distributed generation project in Boothbay, which regulators approved testing as a way to defer expansion of a transmission line to the peninsula to meet summer peak demand.
King’s bill would direct states to consider such projects — called non-transmission alternatives — as a way to solve transmission problems, as the Maine PUC has piloted and is studying in the Boothbay project and through two other GridSolar proposals for the midcoast and Portland area.
King, an early investor in the wind industry who said he has been interested in those issues academically for years, said that’s not the best way to address power capacity demands.
“The grid now has a huge amount of excess capacity,” King said. “It’s like building a new church for Christmas and Easter. You end up with a lot of empty pews in February.”
He thinks pricing power in a way that encourages spreading out demand away from the current peaks can work, if history is a guide.
“I remember when we had time-of-day pricing on phone calls and vividly remember my father saying that I could not make that long distance call until after 9 p.m.,” King said. “We have the ability to adjust.”
Major utilities are wary of that kind of change, King said, but added that bill is not “anti-utility.”
“I understand that there is a cost involved in having the wires to your house,” King said. “But the question is what’s the right number and how do state [public utilities commissions] figure out what the right number is?”
That topic recently generated a battle in Augusta, when Central Maine Power Co. suggested a flat fee on customers generating their own power.
King’s bill would have states determine what the charge from utilities should be for connecting a certain power source to the grid and how different rates should be set based on time of day and the power generation resource used, a process referred to as “unbundling.”
Under King’s bill, if a state does move ahead with unbundling and setting rates for connecting to the grid — say, for a house with solar panels — it would be classified under the 1978 Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act as a “qualifying facility.” That designation requires a utility to buy the power that resource generates.
Several states, including Maine, have approved terms for what’s called net metering, in which a home or business can receive credits for the power that they generate. But those credits come at a flat rate, regardless of the time the power was generated.
The smartphone app from regional grid manager ISO New England, called ISO to Go, gives something of a look into how that would work, as the wholesale power market changes prices in minutes, depending on a variety of factors that get to how badly power is needed at that particular moment.
“You can explore how changing grid conditions affect wholesale electricity prices and the fuel mix used to keep your lights on,” the app states in an informational panel.
Flip to the local view of power prices and you get a sense for how the economic incentives to use power at a particular time of day aren’t very strong for most users.
“While you may not see savings on your monthly bill by waiting until late at night, when demand for electricity is at its lowest, to run the washer and dryer, it does help the region as a whole,” an informational menu in the app states.
Maine has experimented with charging different rates for power used at different times of day, but the PUC tossed out bids for that time-of-use service in its latest solicitation.
As the price comes down on renewables, such as solar, King said the policy questions laid out in his bill will require answers.
“The question is whether it happens in an orderly, reasonable way or if we have a bunch of little wars all over the country,” King said.