Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Donate today to support the journalism you rely on!

Citing Low Participation, PSNH To Phase Out Green Energy Program

National Renewable Energy Laboratory / NREL

Regulators have given Public Service of New Hampshire, the state’s largest electric utility, permission to phase out its EarthSmart Green rate, which allows customers pay more to support renewable energy. PSNH asked for relief from the program because just 148 customers are signed up; that’s about .04 percent percent of their customers.

But it’s a phenomenon that isn’t unique to PSNH. In general New Hampshire rate-payers haven’t been convinced to switch to more expensive renewable rates.

Utilities are required by law to offer customers the opportunity to support renewable energy by paying a higher rate. Every power provider has a different rate, but they tend to add about 30 percent to your electric bill.

But there’s an escape hatch. If not enough customers sign up, a utility can ask for permission to pull the plug on its program. After two years of limping along, PSNH is the first to pull the plug.

Company spokesman Mike Skelton says it would take just 1 percent of their total customers signing up to keep it alive. “We have about 148 customers on the rate right now, so we would need an additional more than 3,500 to sign up by January 1st for the rate to continue,” he explains, adding that it’s unlikely to happen. That’s more than 23 times as many rate-payers getting on board.

And other utilities are in a similar boat.  Unitil’s spokesman, Alec O’Meara, says his company has been watching PSNH’s move carefully and is weighing whether to continue its program. They have just 25 people signed up, also down at .04 percent.

“We gave out flyers, we give customers who do enroll some stickers some clings that they can put on their cars to dry to generate some word of mouth,” says O’Meara, “but it just seems to not really be growing much at all.”

This is not to say that these programs can’t succeed. A reportfrom the National Renewable Energy Lab, or NREL, shows that some parts of the country have way more folks signing up to buy green power. 18 percent of customers in Palo Alto, California, and 7.6 percent in Naperville, Illinois.

And small changes in programs can make a big difference. The state’s second largest utility, the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative, tells customers they can buy renewable electricity in “blocks” that cost $3 a month, and represent about 100 kilowatts.

Heather Moneypenny with the Coop says their program’s participation rate is somewhere between seven and nine better than PSNH and Unitil, depending on the year. She ascribes the higher participation to “the simplicity of knowing for $3 a month, this is exactly what it is rather than not knowing how much of my bill might go up or down.”

Credit NREL
Sales of renewable electricity for compliance with state mandates began to outstrip voluntary sales in 2010

The elephant in the room is marketing. Are the numbers so low because companies aren’t getting the word out about them?

New Hampshire utilities report they’ve spent at the low-end $1,500 (Liberty Utilities) and at the top $75,000 (PSNH) marketing these programs over two years, though it’s not clear what’s being counted in the figures each provided. Most say their marketing efforts have focused on mailers and bill inserts.

But the most successful seller of green energy in New Hampshire, newcomer North American Power, makes it acenterpiecemuch of their marketing efforts. The option is displayed prominently on their website and featured in videos.

“If you don’t market something you can’t expect to sell much of it, right?” says Kerry Breitbart is North American Power’s CEO.

At 1.2 percent customer participation, it has the best numbers in the state by far. But Breitbart says those New Hampshire numbers are a lot lower than other places. “We’re in 10 states at the moment and we’ve had more success promoting 100 percent green products in some rather than others,” he says.

So, the culture of the place matters, but advertising perhaps helps.

Even though some utilities are wrapping up their green power programs in New Hampshire, the restructuring of the electric market that happened last decade means that unhappy customers hoping to support renewables with their dollars, can take them elsewhere.

That’s something that, PSNH spokesman Mike Skelton readily acknowledges saying, “There are many suppliers that offer green rates, or 100% wind rates or solar rates. So customers still have the ability to go out and support those.”

Utilities may be willing to send these customers away, because in New Hampshire, at least, there are don’t seem to be enough of them to be worth the trouble.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
Related Content

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.