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A Former Mill Town Takes Control Of The Future Of Its Power Supply

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Daniela Allee
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NHPR

In May, the small town of Harrisville started to write the next chapter for its energy future. Harrisville voters approved the second community power plan in the state (the neighboring city of Keene was first)

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With a community power plan, the town will purchase power on behalf of residents and businesses. Advocates say this system lets towns choose to get more energy from renewable resources, some of them local, and at a possibly lower cost to ratepayers. Utilities would still distribute that energy to homes and businesses. Town officials hope the community power plan will help Harrisville withstand anticipated and unanticipated service disruptions in the face of climate change. 

“You don't need to just passively pay your [power] bill once a month,” town select board chair Andrea Hodson says. “You can ask, ‘Why aren't we getting more renewable power and why isn't it less expensive? And what more can we do to really take control, local control over addressing climate change?’” 

The decision to pursue renewable energy has deep roots in Harrisville. The town’s location was specifically designed to capitalize on water power, according to Erin Hammerstedt, the executive director of Historic Harrisville, a local non-profit. The town’s heart is its mill complex, which dates back to the 19th century. Red brick buildings surround a pond and brook in the center of town. 

Like many of New Hampshire’s towns, Harrisville’s water-powered sawmills and the wool industry. But those industries declined and the Cheshire Mill complex closed in 1970. But water still provides energy, because in 2018, Historic Harrisville installed a 38-kilowatt turbine to power the five buildings in the mill complex.

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Credit Daniela Allee / NHPR
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NHPR
This 38 kilowatt water turbine was installed in 2018 and provides power to Harrisville's former mill complex.

Getting back to these roots of renewable energy was a priority for the non-profit, Hammerstedt says, because a greater focus on renewable energy helps keep costs down for complex tenants. But she says self-reliance is also an important community value. “It’s who we are,” she says.

Ned Hulbert, a member of Harrisville’s planning board, agrees. He first heard about community power in late fall 2019, soon after a law passed that made it easier for communities to enroll residents in these aggregation programs by creating an opt-out system. 

He pitched it to the selectboard as something this small town should explore. 

He says he saw connections between the town’s master plan and community power. Harrisville wants to become more independent and resilient because they already know the damage severe weather can create.  In 2008, an ice storm left the town without power for two weeks. Already, climate change is bringing more extreme weather, which adds stress on an electricity grid that’s seeing higher demand

When Hulbert brought up community power to town selectboard chair Hodson, she looked closely at her electricity bill for the first time. 

She says she realized that community power could offer cheaper electricity and access to sustainable  energy, along with the possibility of developing local solar and battery storage. Both could serve as an important backup in case another ice storm comes.   

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Credit Daniela Allee / NHPR
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NHPR
Andrea Hodson, left, and Ned Hulbert, right say community power could offer cheaper rates and more choices for small towns like theirs to get more energy from renewable sources.

One of the town’s first goals is to get energy supply at a rate that’s equal to or cheaper than the default utility electricity service. Harrisville’s community power plan currently offers two pricier tiers above that. 

Hulbert says those include a higher proportion of green energy for people who want it. But he says that if they can’t meet or beat the utility’s default service, Harrisville won’t move forward with its plan. 

Community power is a new concept for towns in New Hampshire, so getting educated and educating their neighbors took about a year.  

Hulbert, Hodson and other members of the town’s electric aggregation committee hosted community information sessions on Zoom, walked around town with copies of the plan to hand out, and sent out postcards.  

Residents asked about cost, whether this would hurt their current relationship with Eversource, and whether pursuing this plan was too complicated for a town with fewer than 1,000 residents. 

Earlier this year, utilities and some state representatives expressed concerns during public hearings for HB 315 that community power programs would have a negative effect on customers who remained on the utility default service. Eventually utilities, legislators and advocates agreed on a compromise to the bill, which kept community power programs intact and addresses some technical questions in the original 2019 law. 

Henry Herndon, an energy consultant with the Community Power Coalition of New Hampshire, says there are three major ways community power might reshape the state’s energy future. 

“Democratize, decentralize and decarbonize the power sector.” 

Herndon says as community power programs in the state develop over the next several years, residents may have better access to energy storage or smart meters, among other things. 

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Credit Town of Harrisville
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Harrisville's timeline for adopting and establishing community power.

In the long run, community power programs could represent a strong local investment. Herndon says it could allow towns to invest in larger local renewable energy projects, like solar farms or hydropower, weatherization or training local tradespeople.

Harrisville hopes to have its program up and running by early next year. They’ve submitted their plan to the Public Utilities Commission, but they’re waiting for those regulators to finalize rules for how community power will work. 

And Harrisville likely won’t be the last community power adapters in New Hampshire. Bigger communities, like Lebanon, Nashua, Hanover and Swanzey, are planning their own community power programs too. 

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