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Sununu's Net Metering Plan Tees Up Another Renewable Energy Clash in Concord

Allegra Boverman for NHPR

Gov. Chris Sununu has a new plan to expand renewable energy net metering for towns and businesses. It’s an alternative to a plan he’s blocked the past two years.

But advocates of that plan, and some Democratic legislators, aren’t pleased with the package of Republican-sponsored bills the governor endorsed Monday.

It puts net metering in the center of the legislature’s renewable energy debate for the third year running.

Net metering allows a homeowner, town or businessto produce their own energy – usually with solar, wind or hydropower – and sell any energy they don’t use back to the regional grid. It lets those “customer-generators” save money on their energy bills and reduce their carbon footprint.

The current limit on net metering for large customers is one megawatt. Sununu has opposed increasing that limit in recent years, arguing that too much net metering could shift costs onto other ratepayers. The Public Utilities Commission says it can’t determine if that’s true.

Renewable energy advocates say there’s no evidence that's currently happening.

They also say the low cap on net metering is preventing New Hampshire from catching up with its neighbors on solar power development, and making it harder for towns and businesses to control their own energy costs.

The plan the governor is now supporting puts municipal net metering in a separate measure from business and industrial net metering, and regulates them in different ways.

One billwould let local governments net meter as much of their own energy as they want -- but they couldn’t install more generating capacity than they’d need to meet their typical demand in municipal buildings.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Tim Lang of Sanbornton, says this would discourage creating too much excess power to sell back to the grid at a potential profit.

"You need to tie it to consumption,” he says. “The intention [of net metering] wasn't to turn it into a revenue stream for people – the intention was, if you create a little bit of excess, then you can go ahead [and sell it]."

Opponents of the plan say this kind of pre-planned excess generation is not common practice.

"You need to tie it to consumption." - Rep. Tim Lang

On the business side, Sununu is supporting a bill that would let businesses net meter above the current one-megawatt limit – up to 125 percent of their typical electricity needs.

Like the municipal proposal, this bill also seeks to discourage too much excess generation.

Businesses would get a lower rate of return than they do now for any extra power they sell back to the grid. And the bill says any net metering above one megawatt would have to be for a single user, at a single site.

Madeleine Mineau, executive director of the advocacy group Clean Energy New Hampshire, says those caveats mean this bill would be practically useless to most large energy customers.

"We don't want to remove one barrier and add a whole bunch of different restrictions at the same time,” she says.

Mineau would rather that legislators pass the plan she says already has broad support from towns and businesses. It would raise the large-scale net metering cap from one megawatt to five – the line at which a power generator moves into federal jurisdiction.

Mineau says this proposal would be useful to more customers, galvanize renewable energy development in the state, create jobs and lower costs in the long run.

The plan passed the Legislature with bipartisan support in each of the past two years.Sununu vetoed it both times, and legislators fell short of overriding him by a handful of votes.

Some of the Republican sponsors of Sununu’s favored net metering bills had previously backed the 5-megawatt change. Lang, the legislator from Sanbornton, says his biggest concern was always about cost-shifting – which he says these new bills will prevent.

Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, a Concord Democrat who’s running for governor, called Sununu’s net metering plan a “stunt” in a statement Monday.

It leaves the net metering issue at a continued stalemate for now. The range of proposals will be hashed out in legislative committee in the coming weeks, which could result in further compromise before anything goes for a full vote or reaches the governor’s desk.

Sununu on Monday endorsed an additional bill that advocates like Mineau say they will support. It would let small-scale energy generators sell power more easily to customers other than their utilities.

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.
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