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Impact: Longmont

Last Tuesday (August 6) Longmont Power and Communications (LPC) brought to the City Council the first results of its rate study for 2020 and 2021. It was more of a preview of coming attractions -- the Council has to approve the utility’s rates. But the staff presented some numbers about how much revenue LPC will need to bring in over the next two years to keep the lights on. And those numbers need some explanation.

This content was originally published by the Longmont Observer and is licensed under a Creative Commons license.

Above, left to right, modern digital smart meters, old analog meters, and an in-home energy display. Photo from Silicon Labs via ICC Media. The linked white paper is a good primer on AMI.

AMI Why?

Bzzzt! We interrupt our regularly scheduled series on climate change and what we’re doing about it here in Colorado to bring you a special bulletin on what’s happening right now in Longmont and what it means to residents.

Last Tuesday (August 6) Longmont Power and Communications (LPC) brought to the City Council the first results of its rate study for 2020 and 2021. It was more of a preview of coming attractions -- the Council has to approve the utility’s rates. But the staff presented some numbers about how much revenue LPC will need to bring in over the next two years to keep the lights on. And those numbers need some explanation.

Counting the Costs

Three budgetary elements have changed since the last time electrical rates were set. Only one of them –a new Customer Information System (CIS), the software that manages utility billing, asset and meter data management – could have been anticipated at that time. The CIS evaluation has now progressed far enough that the software cost can be capitalized. Yawn. Software has a shelf life, and what LPC is using now is definitely past its expiration date. We need a modern system to keep up with the other things our electric utility has to do for us.

The real news is two other elements of LPC’s new budget. In early 2018 the Longmont City Council passed a resolution requiring the city’s electricity to come from 100% renewable sources by 2030. On October 8, 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 C. This report, the work of 91 authors from 40 nations, brought home to the world just how narrow and strait is our path to keeping the Earth’s climate friendly to life. It validated the actions of Longmont (and the Sierra Club, who initiated and promoted the Ready for 100 program that led to Longmont’s clean energy resolution).

The Platte River Power Authority needs the cities it serves to manage their energy usage to reach the goal of 100% renewable generation. That means not allowing our demand for electricity to spike too high on summer afternoons, forcing PRPA to generate extra energy by ramping up more power from its coal or natural gas generators. At present, Longmont doesn’t have the capability to do much of this kind of demand management. Therefore Longmont doesn’t get the most favorable wholesale energy rates from PRPA. They want us to be a more active partner in getting to 100% - and they are getting behind and pushing until we do. That’s the second cost element that LPC has to manage – a higher wholesale energy rate.

To satisfy PRPA we need to improve our electrical distribution grid by making it smarter. The smart grid is the source of the third cost element that informs our rates: between now and 2023 Longmont plans to install Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) throughout the city. That means replacing 40,000-odd electric meters with communicating digital Smart Meters that report energy usage to the utility’s computers throughout the day, as well as other useful information such as voltage and power quality that helps the utility do a better job and learn how to optimize energy use.

Spoiler alert: this system will be a bargain, but it won’t be free. For the next two years, the rate you pay for electricity will be somewhat higher. Your mileage may vary: a higher rate doesn’t always mean a higher bill. We will be working to keep your energy costs low. And by the best scientific information available, we will ultimately succeed. Renewable energy costs less than carbon-generated electricity, because the fuel is free. That’s even without counting the cost of environmental damage from burning fossil fuels.

But, what’s in it for ME?

Last November, PRPA came to Stewart Auditorium to talk to Longmont about the transition to renewable energy. They surveyed the attendees, and conducted a randomized scientific survey of Longmont residents who did not attend. Nearly 6 in 10 residents are willing to pay $5-$20/month more for 100% renewable energy. A third of the attendees were willing to pay over $30!

Council Member Bonnie Finley expressed the opposite point of view in Council Tuesday night [-1:27:33]. “I always have the test, you know, of my 94 year old dad and his 91 year old wife. Unless you can tell me how they can pay less money using this infrastructure, I’m not going to vote for it at all. Because they can’t afford it.”

That’s a fair point: we have households in Longmont who don’t have $5 margin in their monthly budget. And even the climate emergency doesn’t free us from our municipal duty to see that they’re OK. Here’s what Longmont does today to help residents afford their electric bill:

  •  COPE (Citizens’ Option to Provide Energy) Program is a neighbor-neighbor program that allows residents who are not in need to donate through their electric bill. The city administers the program without charging any administrative fees on donations or disbursements, and the OUR center screens applicants for assistance and manages awards.
  • A Residential Life Support discount is available to LPC customers who require medical life support equipment at home. This discount is only applied to the first 750kWh of energy used per month. There’s a companion program that alerts LPC workers when there’s an outage, so that priority is given to restoring your power early. To qualify for this service just sign up for the Longmont CAReS program. When you do that, you may find you’re eligible for additional financial help.
  • Additionally, persons needing even more energy subsidies may qualify for county, state and federal assistance.

We expect a comprehensive report on these programs, by the way, when the staff brings the new rate proposals to the Council. But Longmont’s electric rates are among the lowest in the nation, and would remain so even with an increase of 10% or more!

All this doesn’t answer Council Member Finley’s question. Let’s go on:

It’s not just money. The poor, the elderly, and the disabled need reliability in their electric service even more than they need low rates. They have respirators. They can’t endure extremes of heat and cold. They feel vulnerable when the lights go out. If this summer’s heat wave in Europe taught us anything, it’s that we need to be prepared for temperature extremes. Our electrical distribution system needs to be up to the challenge.

Electricity in the 1950s was not reliable or consistent enough to sustain today’s mix of sensitive electronics, fluctuating loads, and 24x7 consumption. As the years passed and our needs increased, we modernized the grid. We spent money to do this, and sometimes it impacted our service rates. Now, renewable energy will cause another major paradigm shift just as big as the advent of home electronics, server farms, and the internet did. But our expectation of 99.999% reliability is here to stay.

To handle fluctuations in the power supply from wind and solar, the municipal utility’s distribution grid must get smarter. The city’s investment in AMI today will ensure that our power supply stays reliable as we increase the proportion of renewables. We’ll keep Grandpa’s lights on, his scooter charged, and his oxygen flowing.

But what about the money? When you buy a house, you make a down payment. And then mortgage payments. As a wise investor, you accumulate wealth over the years and end up much more comfortable and secure than if you hadn’t made that sacrifice of liquidity at the beginning.

Our AMI investment is a down payment. Moderately higher rates for the next two years while we capitalize the Smart Grid infrastructure will pay off in several ways.

  1. As our city gets smarter and manages its demand better, we will get better wholesale rates from PRPA. In turn, that will let LPC keep your rates lower.
  2. As we get better at demand management, we become a better partner to PRPA, and help it lower its costs. Ultimately, PRPA will need less generation capacity than it would if we didn’t have a Smart Grid. Again, our rates will be lower because of that. (Next month we’ll really explain this.)
  3. The AMI system gives LPC data needed to optimize how much power it delivers. Today, without that data, we have to over-deliver. Your home appliances run “hotter” and consume more electricity than they need to – and you pay for it. You aren’t being cheated. All utilities except the most sophisticated ones work this way. But as LPC gets smarter, it can lower your bills by delivering just enough.
  4. If you want, the Smart Grid can help you modify your behavior to reduce your electric bill. That’s called Home Energy Management. The utility can integrate your Smart Grid data with products like Google Nest and Samsung Smart Home to make those products really powerful. But if you don’t care, you can ignore the whole thing and go on just as always. It’s a common misconception that consumers have to take an active role in energy management with the Smart Grid. It’s an option, not a must.
  5. In a few years you can let LPC’s Smart Grid automate your Home Energy Management. The Smart Grid will more efficiently optimize your power use than you could do on your own with a smartphone app. But again, it’s an option, not a must.

Longmont’s investment in AMI over the next two years will benefit you directly in three ways:

  • It will keep your energy supply as clean and reliable as ever despite big changes in how it is generated and delivered.
  • It will save you money long term.
  • It will help us do our part – a BIG part – in saving the planet.

That’s no exaggeration. Federal and State governments can pass all the laws and set all the goals and mandates they like. When it comes down to it, communities like ours, responsible corporations, and private citizens like you and me are the ones who will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and restrain planetary heating. We will save ourselves from the mess we’re in. Let’s get to it!

Fear Porn

Here’s something funny. When I was hitting the Google for a free photo of smart meters for this story, I found a bunch of stuff on how you should wrap your smart meter with aluminum foil to protect you from poisonous radiation. And scare stories about how people’s electric bill went up to $1200.00 from their smart meter. And just when I was about to despair, I found the blogs written by scientists debunking all those articles and exposing how scammers try to capitalize on people’s natural uneasiness about things they don’t understand. They called this “fear porn.”

So I just want to reassure everyone, right now, that the AMI system we install will be safe. And beneficial. It won’t embezzle money from your bank account. I don’t want anybody to be afraid, especially from lack of information or misunderstanding. So here’s my offer. If something about this Smart Grid thing seems scary, or complicated, or doesn’t make sense, just ask me. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find out. That’s my promise, because I believe in what Longmont is doing, and I want you to believe in it, too.

Longmont is an amazing city with some of the best-run services anywhere. They are about to get better. And we will still have just about the lowest rates in the state.

As for saving the planet, I’ve got one thing to say: must go faster!