You’re Only as Good as Your Grid: Part III

Last week we looked at how the power grid is regulated in a general sense; this week, we’re going to dive into three case studies of specific states and their systems for providing electricity. We’ll focus on Washington, New Hampshire and Colorado, the three of which represent places where I happen to have significant connections. 🙂 Happily, they also represent a variety of approaches to providing electricity to consumers. However, these states obviously do not reflect the whole picture of the energy system, and leave out some really interesting examples of regulatory structures; Texas and California have some really interesting changes going on currently that are worth learning more about if you’re interested. Vox has been doing great reporting on this; you can read about renewable energy in Texas here and I mentioned this great article about decisions facing California last week.

New Hampshire

New Hampshire is the only one of the states we are looking at in which consumers buy electricity (and natural gas, which is a different topic) in a wholesale deregulated market, which is administered by the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission. This means that power is distributed to consumers by the company that services their home area, but that consumers have a choice in who produces the energy they buy.

New Hampshire obtains a significant fraction of its energy from nuclear power (about 55%). Natural gas is used to generate 20% of electricity, and biomass and hydroelectric power are the two main sources of renewable energy (17% total). New Hampshire generates more power from the Seabrook nuclear power plant than consumers uses and sells back the excess into the ISO New England marketplace.

Consumers in New Hampshire can shop for energy providers; many providers allow consumers to opt into purchasing completely renewable energy. As of 2012, only about five percent of homeowners had switched their electricity provider; when the program was launched in 1998, marketing was mostly directed to larger, industrial electricity consumers. Additionally, there weren’t a ton options to choose from. However, since the program came into existence, new suppliers have entered the market, creating additional choices for consumers. So, if you are a New Hampshire resident and you don’t know the details of where your power comes from and you want to see if you’re paying the best price or switch to renewable power, call your provider or shop around at this site!

Other good articles:

The History of Deregulation in New Hampshire

Energy in New Hampshire

An Unplugged Guide to Energy in NH (from New Hampshire Magazine)

Washington

Washington gets a huge majority of power from renewable sources; hydroelectric power makes up 71% of power output, wind and nuclear combined comprise another 17%, with natural gas and coal making up the remaining 12%. Washington recently passed Initiative 937, which mandates that by 2020, large utilities in the state cut their non-renewable energy sources by an additional 15%, pushing even more of the electricity generation in the state towards renewable sources.

Consumers in Washington are in a regulated market, meaning that only your address determines who your power provider is. This map shows where different electric utilities operate in Washington state. Puget Sound Energy (PSE) is the largest utility company in Washington, but there are a number of other providers that are also regulated by the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission. In the city of Seattle, Seattle City Light is actually the electricity provider (not PSE).

Even though Washington is a deregulated state, there are still options for consumers who want to make their electricity sources greener. PSE offers a variety of options for consumers to make their carbon footprint greener, including purchasing energy from renewable or solar sources. Seattle City Light actually already gets all of its energy from 100% carbon neutral energy; however, they also offer a program called Green Up, which I mentioned here, in which consumers can help create markets for renewable energy.

Colorado

I have saved what I think is the most exciting energy market for last. There are a lot of really interesting changes going on in the Colorado energy markets, driven both by politics in the state and by the economics of renewable energy.

Colorado currently gets most of its energy from coal (54%) and natural gas (23%). Wind power is the third major contributor to Colorado’s energy mix at 17% of power generation. This number has been on the rise in recent years, and is likely to continue to be a key driver of the renewable energy market in Colorado.

Colorado, like Washington, is a regulated state; this means that consumers don’t have choices in who they buy their power from; this handy map shows which power utilities serve which areas of the state. Xcel Energy is the largest provider in the state. For a little while, a group of electricity service providers called the Mountain West Transmission Group was pursuing joining the Southwest Power Pool Regional Transmission Organization, which would have brought consumer choice to Colorado; however, Xcel Energy withdrew in April 2018, and the current status is that discussions have been abandoned. So for the time being, Colorado remains a regulated electricity market.

In 2004, Colorado passed the first Renewable Energy Standard in the country (Washington passed the second, following Colorado’s lead, as mentioned above). This standard mandates that power companies generate electricity from a minimum percentage of renewable sources. Since it was initially passed, the minimum standards have been raised three times, and currently 20% of power generated by cooperative utilities, and 30% from investor owned utilities, come from renewable sources. In addition to legislation mandating renewable energy standards, renewable energy in Colorado is getting cheaper. Last year, Xcel Energy said that they would shut down two coal fired power plants, and put out a call for proposals for renewable plants to replace that output. By adding in these new renewable sources, the Xcel energy portfolio would rise to 55% renewable sources, up from 40% currently. But the best part about the proposals was how inexpensive wind energy, and even wind energy with storage, came out to be; cheaper than 75% of the coal used for power in Colorado currently. THIS IS A BIG DEAL! At the end of the day, renewables competing with fossil fuels on price is what will make the case for our whole electricity grid to move in that direction- and it’s happening already!

In addition to changing the mix of power generation in their portfolio over the long term, Xcel Energy, like many providers, offers options to customers for making their electricity greener. Black Hills energy, the other publicly regulated utility, looks to offer few options for making your bill greener- if you buy electricity from them, this is a great opportunity to call them and let them know you’d like options to purchase power from renewable sources!

This is an exciting time in the world of the energy grid!!! Next week’s post will cover how you can get involved in making your local electricity network more green. I truly believe that the future holds a clean energy grid in the US; since many key decisions happen on a local scale, there is a huge opportunity for consumers to get involved and have an influence on policies that will affect how their electricity power generates their power.

A few additional links that I found helpful and interesting:

Ballotpedia is an awesome non-profit that covers policy issues nationwide. They have a great series of articles about state-specific energy policies:

Colorado

New Hampshire

Washington

Powersuite is a company (which requires a subscription to access some materials- I don’t have it, so I can’t vouch for whether it’s useful!) that covers energy policy. They have some nice summaries of the regulatory bodies that oversee energy production:

Colorado

New Hampshire

Washington

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