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N.H. PUC Reopens Record On Energy Efficiency Plan, Further Postponing Decision

Energy efficiency
Annie Ropeik
/

After months of inaction that advocates say has hurt jobs and businesses, the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission is reopening the record on a delayed state energy efficiency plan.

The proposal sets goals for how much electricity and gas the state’s utilities aim to save by offering energy efficiency measures through 2023. The lost revenue is covered by ratepayers, typically through very small charges on residential bills.

The PUC delayed approving the plan late last year after House Republicans and the Business and Industry Association, outside formal filings in the case, raised concerns about its economic impacts during COVID-19. An order was due out in February but never came.

Critics of the move say the commission’s inaction on the plan since then has taken a toll on the efficiency sector, which is New Hampshire’s largest energy-related employer and shed hundreds of jobs during the pandemic.

In the meantime, the PUC gained a new commissioner: Dan Goldner. In their order today (scroll down to read it in full), they say he’s reviewed the record in the energy efficiency case but needs a chance to ask questions.

They’ll collect new records on the matter over the next two weeks, then schedule a new hearing two weeks after that. The order says the commissioners “find reopening the record and taking additional evidence will enhance their ability to resolve matters in this proceeding.”

But this development may be frustrating for energy efficiency advocates who’ve spent months in limbo on the settlement that shapes the myriad consumer rebate programs and incentives of NHSaves.

Kelly Buchanan, the regulatory affairs director of the advocacy group Clean Energy New Hampshire, said in a statement that they're glad the PUC is "moving towards a decision."

"[T]here is already overwhelming evidence in the record that the settlement agreement is just and reasonable, serves the public interest, and is cost-effective" Buchanan said. "Clean Energy NH fully supports that settlement, but will continue to participate fully in achieving a satisfactory outcome."

Former PUC commissioner Kate Bailey, whose six-year term ended in June, said in a recent interview with NHPR that stalled decisions like this one stemmed from a “less collaborative” culture under PUC chair Dianne Martin. Martin was formerly the state attorney general’s chief of staff and took the top PUC job in fall 2019, in the initial late stages of the energy efficiency case.

“The chair has a lot of power to move things forward. And if the chair doesn't want to move things forward … it doesn't go anywhere,” Bailey said. “I'm not even saying that we had disagreement. She [Martin] had the authority to move things forward or not. And she – and things didn't get moved forward.”

The PUC has previously declined to comment on any reason for the delay.

Under the budget bill that created the new state Department of Energy, Martin was given the powers and duties of all other state commissioners, meaning she began reporting directly to Gov. Chris Sununu as of July.

Asked about the energy efficiency delay at a recent energy-related bill signing, Sununu said he was unsure he could comment on pending PUC matters. Consumer advocate Don Kreis later told NHPR he doesn’t believe there’s any rule that prohibits that.

Kreis and the parties that signed onto the energy efficiency plan, which include the utilities, businesses and clean energy groups, had sought a PUC status conference on the issue in late July. The PUC says this order constitutes a response to that request.

Updated: September 1, 2021 at 4:51 PM EDT
Update at 4:49 p.m:

PUC Chairwoman Dianne Martin sent the following statement in response to a request for comment:

"The Public Utilities Commission is an adjudicative body and, much like a court, is prohibited from commenting on all pending matters before it. The Commission’s statutory code of ethical conduct requires commissioners and Commission personnel refrain from public comment about any specific matter pending before the Commission. (Please see RSA 363:12, IV). As a result, I cannot comment on Docket DE 20-092 beyond what is contained in the Commission’s recent order and directing you to the public docket.

Regarding process generally, RSA 363:16 is clear that a majority of the Commission is required to reach a decision and issue a final order in a docket. No single Commissioner, including the Chair, can act alone and issue a final order without agreement by a majority of the Commission."
Updated: September 1, 2021 at 12:40 PM EDT
This story was updated to include a statement from Clean Energy New Hampshire.