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At hearing, N.H. lawmakers and stakeholders debate the future of state’s energy efficiency programs

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Ralph Orlowski
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New Hampshire Bulletin/Getty Images
State investments in energy efficiency programs will save money over the long term, proponents argued during Tuesday’s hearing.

The fight over the future of energy efficiency in New Hampshire is now being waged in the Legislature, with a new proposal that will be up for a vote in the House Science, Technology, and Energy Committee later this month.

This article was first published in New Hampshire Bulletin.

During a public hearing Tuesday on House Bill 549, which was retained by the committee last session, lawmakers heard from environmental groups, energy contractors and auditors, and New Hampshire residents, most of whom opposed a contentious proposal to change the state’s energy efficiency programs.

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The bill that members of the public prepared to comment on would have slashed funding for energy efficiency by exempting commercial and industrial customers from paying into the programs by way of the system benefits charge. At the start of the meeting, though, bill sponsor Rep. Michael Vose, an Epping Republican and the committee chairman, reversed course on that piece of the bill, saying commercial and industrial customers would remain a part of the program.

The last-minute changes created confusion at the hearing, largely because they weren’t announced and Vose seemed to instruct the audience to testify on the previous version of the bill. Some did, while others weighed in on Tuesday’s changes, and some decided not to testify at all because of the late changes. At the end of the session, Vose said there would not be another public hearing on the final version of the bill – a decision committee Democrats criticized.

“At the executive session we are going to have a free-for-all fight on provisions we haven’t seen or discussed,” Rep. Lee Oxenham, a Plainfield Democrat, said after the meeting.

Meanwhile, amid the legislative maneuvering, those whose livelihoods hang in the balance filled the room during Tuesday’s hearing.

“The instability of this program at its core makes it hard and volatile to work in,” said Michael Turcotte, who owns an energy efficiency business and opposed the bill. Turcotte said he started his Nashua-based business with $364 dollars when he was 23. Now, he employs 20 people, almost all of whom are under 40, a demographic that, he said, “believes in what we are doing.”

His message to lawmakers: “Please let me go back to work as quick as possible. I want to grow this business. I want to stay in New Hampshire.”

Turcotte’s business, like many others in the state, have been in limbo because the state has failed to move forward on a three-year energy efficiency plan that was supposed to take effect at the start of this year.

In theory, the proposed legislation should be separate from the triennial energy efficiency plan, said Kelly Buchanan, director of regulatory affairs for Clean Energy New Hampshire, a nonprofit that advocates for clean energy. But in reality, at Tuesday’s hearing the two were intertwined.

And Vose, the bill’s prime sponsor, explicitly linked the two, calling his proposal a solution to the problem of the ongoing delay at the Public Utilities Commission. Vose said the amended HB 549 arose out of the “failed” energy efficiency triennium plan, which is currently stalled before the utilities commission.

In fact, Vose has been rooting for the failure of that plan since last year, when he joined eight Republican lawmakers who sent a letter to the utilities commission urging them not to move forward with it. And the latest version of HB 549 follows an unsuccessful attempt to return control of the state’s energy efficiency programs to the Legislature in the last session. The bill was retained in committee after it faced significant opposition at an initial public hearing in February.

Vose says his amendment will still increase the system benefits charge, but that it would raise it less than the triennium energy plan that’s currently stalled before the utilities commission. He estimates that his plan would allow the system benefits charge to increase $10 million to $20 million a year, while the triennium plan’s budget was between $80 million and $100 million. While that charge is around $4 per month for residential electric customers, some in the business community have opposed increasing the charge, which is higher for customers that use more energy.

The proposal also gives political appointees at the Department of Energy control of planning, stripping that responsibility from the Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Energy Board.

Vose has two main problems with the triennial plan and the current course of energy efficiency in the state: He sees it as a tax, which has led him to argue for Legislative control over increases to the system benefits charge. And he says it’s too costly.

“The business community in our state balked at the high cost of the triennial plan, as did the staff of the PUC,” he said during Tuesday’s hearing. No one from the business community testified in support of Vose’s amendment, however. Thirty-two people signed in to oppose the amendment, but no one signed in to support it.

And opponents of the plan to curtail energy efficiency efforts say it’s not a matter of weighing costs and benefits, as Vose argued, but that it’s about investment. Sam Evans-Brown of Clean Energy New Hampshire compared it to a coupon: You pay $1 for a coupon that’s worth $2.50. Others had the figure even higher – a $3 return for each $1 spent on energy efficiency measures.

For Bonnie Christie of Hopkinton, the investment in energy efficiency is a way to combat climate change, something that she feels acutely as the mother of a firefighter battling wildfires.

“We can stop this madness. We can invest in energy efficiency in every home, every business, every school, and build a livable future,” Christie said.

Her testimony was met with applause from some members of the committee, which Rep. Doug Thomas, the acting chair, quieted. “This is a public hearing, not a concert,” he said.

Vose’s new plan did win over at least one old opponent: Consumer Advocate Don Kreis, who opposed last year’s attempt to give the Legislature the final say over increases to the system benefits charge.

He said the amended version of HB 549 was a “vastly more preferable approach to providing that oversight and assuring that the EERS [Energy Efficiency Resource Standard] is subject to meaningful regulatory guardrails.”

And, Kreis said, the new version of the bill – which includes incremental increases to the system benefits charge – would be a workable framework for moving forward.

Kate Peters, who runs energy efficiency programs for the state’s largest utility, Eversource, said that while the company was initially going to oppose the amended version, she would have to take some time to review the changes that at first glance seemed to represent a positive development.

Energy auditor Ted Stiles, who works in Rochester, said he’s seen the need for robust energy efficiency programs firsthand, such as when kids have to wear gloves and hats inside during the winter because old, drafty New Hampshire houses don’t hold in the heat well. Stiles said delays at the Public Utilities Commission have meant that some utilities, like Unitil and Liberty, aren’t taking on new customers who qualify for energy efficiency programs.

“We need to help these people if we want them to stay,” Stiles said.

The committee will vote on the bill during an executive session on October 26.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.