Energy Policy Rhetoric Heats Up In N.H. Governor's Race

Sep 4, 2018

Credit NHPR File Photo

Energy has become a focal point in the race to become New Hampshire's next governor.

The region’s high energy rates make it a key economic issue, and climate change make it a crucial environmental one.

Democrats Molly Kelly and Steve Marchand and Republican Governor Chris Sununu are all working to differentiate themselves on those challenges.

Marchand is a self-described energy wonk. He's gone all in on the details of what he calls "generational change."

Marchand supports federal study of offshore wind development in New Hampshire. He has a plan to improve energy efficiency access for low-income families. And he wants half of New Hampshire's electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030. It's part of his broader push for big, long-term reforms.

“We often think in Planet Concord terms of two-year increments because that's the term of everybody,” Marchand said at an August forum in Exeter. "And that means that it's hard to do generational change.

“And that's why, when I think of this entire campaign, it makes a little harder in the short term because you're asking folks to go bigger than the next two years," he said. 

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Steve Marchand and Molly Kelly field questions about energy in Exeter in early August.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

That forum with the Rockingham County Democrats was one of Marchand’s first debates with his primary opponent Molly Kelly.

At least a hundred people packed the room to hear the candidates speak, and lots of the questions were about energy.

One big sticking point was the state's latest controversial natural gas pipeline proposal -- the Liberty Utilities project known as Granite Bridge.

Marchand opposes it, saying it would deepen New Hampshire's reliance on fossil fuels, and put ratepayers at risk for future price spikes.

But many politicians of both parties support the pipeline plan. And Kelly hasn't rejected it outright.

She says she'd oppose any project that was unsafe or bad for ratepayers – but she doesn't think the Northeast is ready to quit natural gas cold turkey.

“We can't just stop everything, because we're not ready,” she said at the Exeter forum. “And so in the meantime we have to look at how we can balance that to get to where we need to go.”

Kelly's main energy focus has been on net metering.

As a state senator in 2013, she sponsored the bill that set up the program in New Hampshire. It lets residents, towns and businesses generate and sell their own solar or hydro power back into the grid, and has accounted for a small amount of renewable growth in the state.

In June, Governor Sununu vetoed a bill that would expand the program. Kelly has railed against that veto at numerous campaign stops. She and Marchand want to remove all limits on net metering.

As for other, specific energy proposals – Kelly has repeatedly declined to offer any.

"The future is renewable energy, and as I said, we need to wean ourselves from fossil fuel, and we will do that,” she said at a recent campaign stop in Hanover.

Sununu signed three Republican-backed energy bills at the August event in Epping.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

That's language you won't hear from Republican governor Chris Sununu.

He's aligned himself with the economic side of energy – saying keeping rates low means letting all fuels compete on a level playing field, without subsidies or extra incentives.

Sununu's 10-year state energy strategy, released in April, also says residents will have to support big new pipelines and transmission lines if they want to keep rates down.

And that's the same reason he's dug in on his controversial energy vetoes, at events like his recent roundtable with Republican lawmakers and manufacturers in Epping.

"There's nothing Republican or Democrat when you turn on your light switch. There's nothing Republican or Democrat when you have to pay that bill,” Sununu said. “As a business leader … that impacts your decision in terms of where you're going to go."

Energy itself may not be partisan – but if the campaign so far is any judge, energy policy is a different story.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Steve Marchand hopes to see 50 percent renewable energy use in New Hampshire by 2050. In fact, his target date is 2030.