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Reforms To Energy Siting Rules Begin To Take Shape

Michael Kappel
Flickr CC

One of the biggest questions of this legislative session is how New Hampshire lawmakers will tweak the rules for how the state approves Energy Projects, in a body called the Site Evaluation Committee?

Critics of the Northern Pass and wind farms have converged on this issue as one area where they might get something through the statehouse, and they’ve even found common ground with some project developers, who think the SEC process is unwieldy.  

The initial outlines of what those reforms might look like have begun to emerge. A bipartisan group of senators (Republicans Jeb Bradley and Jeannie Forrester, and Democrats Martha Fuller-Clark and Jeff Woodburn) are expected to propose an amendment to the SEC statute next week.

The amendment proposes a number of changes to the SEC process including:

·         Shrinking the SEC from 15 members to 5.

·         Adding two public representatives, one from the region that will host any proposed energy facility.

·         Create a defined, mandatory process for developers to do outreach to effected communities.

·         Hire a dedicated staff for what is currently an ad-hoc body.

·         Include a new requirement that projects provide “a net public benefit” after considering environmental, economic and community impacts.

Here’s a quick rundown of what those changes include, bullet by bullet.

Increasing Local Input

One of the big complaints from those who have been opposing some of the high-profile projects, like wind farms and the Northern Pass, is that the SEC takes local control away from towns that host power facilities.

Getting total local control doesn't seem to be on the table, but the amendment would strengthen local input to decision makers. It would lay-out a mandatory process that developers would have to go through including information sessions before and after any application to build a project is submitted.

It would also change the role of the counsel for the public, who is a member of the attorney general’s office that currently represents the concerns of state government in these projects. The proposed change would make this person a sort of public engagement coordinator who would gather and act on the concerns of affected citizens.

Finally, and perhaps most consequentially, it would add two public voting members to the SEC: one appointed by the governor, and the other coming from the geographic area where the project is proposed, and appointed by the SEC’s chair.

A Smaller, Nimbler and More Permanent SEC

Another question about the SEC is whether it is up to the challenge of the sheer number and complexity of projects that are being proposed. Back when the SEC was first imagined, dramatically fewer projects came in the span of a year, and some now believe the committee is overwhelmed by the load it is confronted with.

The first proposed – and perhaps counter-intuitive – solution  is to shrink the committee. The SEC takes 15 high-ranking officials from all sorts of state agencies – the Public Utilities Commission, Environmental Services, Economic Resources, Fish and Game, and on and on – and pulls them away from their normal jobs to consider these projects. For starters, some developers think that introduces a “too many cooks in the kitchen” scenario that leads to long and repetitive hearings. This makes it difficult for members of the public to participate and is expensive for developers. Also, these high level officials are being pulled in a lot of directions at once because of their other responsibilities.

Many SEC watchers think shrinking the SEC would mean a more dedicated core group could better focus in on the projects. The proposal is to decrease the size of the SEC from 15 to 5 members: just the commissioners of DES, DRED and the PUC, and the 2 public members.

The second piece of the solution is provide funding for dedicated staff for the SEC, which currently doesn’t exist. Some of that funding would come from project application fees, but this could also mean some sort of new line item in the budget.

The reform imagines a smaller and more nimble SEC, supported by a professional staff who could develop expertise instead of parachuting in whenever there’s a project.

“Net Public Benefit”

The amendment is expected to add language saying the SEC must rule on whether projects will add “net public benefit” when considering environmental, economic and community costs and benefits.

Many who oppose specific projects are concerned that  the SEC is not considering the “big picture” when it decides whether a given energy facility should be built. For years, New Hampshire has been moving toward policies that allow the markets decide what power plants come online, which is why any mention of some sort of “public benefit” was taken out of the SEC criteria. The idea was to get away from big utilities planning out what power plants to build and get to a point where only the most economic projects would succeed. But recent years have shown that some of the projects proposed by the market have been extremely unpopular, prompting this move to put that language back in.

Many in the environmental community like this because they think it will help them to make arguments about CO2 reductions for renewable facilities. At the same time many project opponents might like this because it will let them make arguments about negative impacts on things like esthetics and tourism.

Who Won’t Like the Changes?

The amendment’s sponsors are from both sides of the aisle, and have been taking it around to regulators, business interests, environmental groups and other key parties, doing a lot of groundwork required to ensure they will get substantial support. That said, it’s very early still. The full language of the proposal comes out next week, and that’s when reactions will start to roll in.

There are pieces of this amendment which are likely to rankle project developers. They might see both the public representatives and the requirement of a public benefit making it at least somewhat harder to get facilities built. At the same time, some opponents will think these reforms don’t go far enough, because they don’t present a clear path for a local community to block a project they don’t like.

This amendment is still in the very early stages, however, and nothing proposed so far should be considered final. Anyone and everyone who doesn't like all or an aspect of the amendment will get a chance to air their grievances next week, and that's when a better picture of how this proposal stands politically will begin to emerge. 

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.

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