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Where does your power come from? We answered your questions about the N.H. energy system.

A photo of tall powerlines against a pale blue sky.
Sue Thompson
/
Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

Energy is essential to our lives. It keeps us warm, powers the ventilators in our hospitals, runs the machines that package our food and helps us see through the darkness of a winter night.

But our energy system carries costs — costs that are driving climate change.

The energy system is complicated. And as we take action to address climate change, and global and regional systems change, we have to understand where our electricity comes from.

The latest IPCC report says that every ton of carbon emissions makes a difference for our climate future. Earlier this month, global leaders at the 26th United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow wrestled with how to reduce carbon emissions.

The consequences of inaction on climate change threaten the health and livelihoods of Granite Staters and people everywhere.

Experts say the coming years are critical for mitigating climate change. So what does our energy future look like?

How does New Hampshire contribute to global emissions?

And if you want to get involved with changing energy policy — where would you start?

Skip ahead to a specific section: Fossil fuel emissions in New Hampshire Climate goals in New Hampshire What energy powers New Hampshire Renewable sources of electricity generated in New Hampshire Who sets New Hampshire's energy policy New Hampshire's energy future


Where do most of our fossil fuel emissions come from in New Hampshire?


Simply: cars and trucks, with ships, trains and airplanes also contributing.

A 2019 analysis of greenhouse gas emissions in New Hampshire from the state’s Department of Environmental Services (NHDES) found that the transportation sector accounted for the largest share of emissions here, at 47%.

A pie chart showing New Hampshire Greenhouse Gas Emissions By Source
N.H. Department of Environmental Services

Residential emissions, mostly from home heating, account for 19%.

Commercial and industrial emissions combined also accounted for 19%.

The emissions coming from power plants generating our electricity accounted for 11%. Emissions from mining and transporting fuel aren’t considered when calculating that figure.

Overall, New Hampshire emitted 15.8 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents within the state in 2019, according to NHDES.

In comparison, Massachusetts emitted 73.3 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents in 2017; Vermont emitted about 8.5 million metric tons in 2017; and Maine emitted 17.5 million metric tons in 2017.

Carbon dioxide accounted for about 91% of statewide emissions in 2019, with industrial processing gases next at 4%.


What are New Hampshire’s climate goals?


On climate goals, we’re behind our neighbors. New Hampshire is the only state in the New England electricity grid that does not mandate greenhouse gas reductions economy-wide.

New Hampshire’s 2009 Climate Action Plan outlines the state’s most recent, non-binding emissions targets: 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

A 2020 report from an ad-hoc state commission found greenhouse gas emissions in New Hampshire have fallen from their 2005 peak, and are lower than the path outlined in the 2009 plan. In-state emissions fell almost 40% between 2005 and 2016. The way we produce electricity contributed most to this reduction, with electric sector emissions representing almost 90% of reductions since 2005.

The state commission found the reduction in emissions from electricity generation was driven primarily by investments in other New England states, which developed policies that encouraged growth in renewable energy and energy efficiency. That means electricity use and demand have fallen in those states. Across the whole New England grid, annual electricity use has declined significantly due to energy efficiency and solar power, according to ISO-New England. (More on that later!)

In turn, that’s helping reduce the amount of electricity New Hampshire needs to generate, and the emissions that generation produces.

In contrast, New Hampshire’s consumption of electricity has grown more than any other New England state between 1990 and 2020, according to a NHDES analysis of ISO-NE and US Department of Energy data. And New Hampshire’s consumption of electricity has decreased less than every state besides Maine from 2005 to 2020.

New Hampshire participates in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an effort from 10 states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic to reduce CO2 emissions.

Under current policies, New Hampshire is likely to maintain similar levels of greenhouse gas emissions for the next decade, according to a presentation from NHDES.


What kind of energy powers New Hampshire? 


In 2019, the Energy Information Administration estimated that nuclear power, motor gasoline, natural gas, distillate fuel oil, and biomass were the largest shares of New Hampshire’s energy consumption.

Transportation, which is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state, is mostly fueled by gas and diesel. Just 0.5 percent of registered vehicles are electric in New Hampshire, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

A chart from the energy information administration which shows New Hampshire's energy consumption estimates for 2019.
Energy Information Administration

Granite Staters heat their homes mostly through fossil fuels, using fuel oil, propane and natural gas. The projected increase in heating bills this winter is, in part, due to the rise in cost for our particular mix of heating fuels.

Where our electricity comes from is harder to track. Here’s one group you need to know: ISO-New England.

That’s the non-profit organization that manages the regional energy grid, of which New Hampshire is part. As the grid operator, ISO-NE coordinates the flow of electricity through the transmission system. It also runs the market for wholesale electricity and plans for how to meet New England’s electricity needs for the future.

Because of this regional system, it’s tough to know the exact source of the electrons keeping our lights on as electricity moves through the grid.

We can get some information on where our electricity comes from by looking at which generators run to meet our demand for electricity. ISO-NE reports which fuels helped to satisfy all residential, commercial, and industrial demand for electricity in New England throughout the year. That’s called “net energy for load.”

Out of the electricity that powered New England in 2020:

  • Natural gas accounted for the largest share of generation in the region, about 52%. That provided about 42% of the “net energy for load,” or the electricity needed to satisfy New England’s demand. Natural gas emits about half as much carbon dioxide as coal, but has its own environmental consequences
  • Nuclear energy — a carbon-free energy source, though not one classified as renewable by ISO-NE — provided almost 22% of the electricity needed to satisfy New England’s demand. 
  • Renewable sources satisfied almost 10% of the region’s demand. Wind, refuse, and wood are the largest sources of what’s considered renewable energy, with solar coming in fourth. 
  • Hydroelectric generation is not included in ISO-New England’s renewables category, because the sources that make up hydroelectric generation are not defined as renewable energy sources universally across New England states. It accounted for about 6.5% of the electricity needed to meet demand. 
  • Coal and oil together met less than 1% of the region’s demand. 
  • About 20% of the electricity serving New England came from Canada and New York. Most of that is from Quebec, where hydropower accounts for 95.2% of electricity generation

The exact mix of fuels generating our electricity changes every day, and ISO-New England maintains a dashboard, with the current fuel mix and demand on the system. Some say “peak shaving,” by using less energy during times of peak demand, or utilizing resources like solar power and battery storage that reduce how much electricity one draws from the grid, can lower both costs and emissions. Others say “beating the peak” may have more of an impact on your utility company’s bottom line.

ISO-New England says they are required to be fuel and technology-neutral, citing their obligation to operate markets that meet the requirements of the Federal Power Act.

That means ISO-NE doesn’t look at environmental attributes of particular resources entering the market. When determining which resources will run every day, and deciding which will get funding to stay open long-term, ISO-NE says they choose the resource that can meet demand at the lowest cost.

But some, including No Coal No Gas activists, question ISO-New England’s statement of neutrality, and say the system operator may disadvantage renewable energy sources.

ISO-New England and NEPOOL, the trade group that makes recommendations to the grid operator, have faced criticism for a lack of transparency in how they make decisions. And last year, a group of New England governors — not including Gov. Chris Sununu — sent a letter to ISO-NE calling for changes to the system that could help their states meet decarbonization goals.

A chart of the distribution of total electric energy by resource type, made by ISO New England.
ISO-NE

Of the electricity we generate in New Hampshire, how much is from renewable sources?

New Hampshire trails neighboring states in the amount of electricity generated from renewables.

Hydroelectric power and other renewables, including small-scale solar installations, accounted for 19% of in-state net electricity generation in 2020, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Renewable sources account for 79% of in-state generation in Maine, 30% in Massachusetts, and about 100% in Vermont, about 100% in Vermont, which has the largest share of in-state net electricity generation from renewables in the country. Vermont classifies hydroelectric power as renewable energy.

Hydropower and biomass are New Hampshire’s largest renewable energy generators. The region’s two largest hydroelectric power plants — Moore Station near Littleton and Comerford Station near Monroe — are located on the border of New Hampshire and Vermont. Biomass accounted for 6% of the state’s total net generation in 2020, powered mostly by wood and wood waste from within the state. Three percent of the state’s renewable energy generation came from the five wind farms in western New Hampshire.

The Seabrook Station nuclear power plant is New Hampshire’s biggest source of in-state electricity generation. About 60% of New Hampshire’s net electricity generation came from the controversial nuclear plant in 2020.

New Hampshire's Net Electricity Generation by Source
Energy Information Administration

The plant provides about a third of New England’s nuclear generating capacity, with the Millstone Power Station in Connecticut providing the other two-thirds. Other nuclear plants in the region and across the U.S. have closed. They faced competition from cheaper natural gas and renewable energy, rising operational costs and safety and performance challenges, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. But some see carbon-free nuclear energy as a climate change solution.

Natural gas accounted for slightly over 20% of New Hampshire’s electricity generation in 2020. New Hampshire has no natural gas reserves or production, but gas comes into New Hampshire from out of state to fuel the state’s natural-gas fired power plants.

New England’s last coal-burning power plant, Merrimack Station in Bow, provides less than 1% of New Hampshire’s in-state generation, down from about 25% of electricity generated by coal in 2001.


Who sets New Hampshire’s energy policies?

At the state level, there are a few important players: the recently-created Department of Energy, the legislature, the governor and regulatory bodies like the Public Utilities Commission. But like other issues in New Hampshire, local communities also have a role in shaping their own policies and goals when it comes to where they get their energy and what kind of renewable goals they want to achieve.

Major players in state energy policy (not listed in order of importance):

Laws & Policy: 

Regulatory: 

  • Public Utilities Commission:  This agency is now administratively attached to the new Department of Energy. The PUC is in charge of energy regulation, and it also approves rate changes for the utilities on your electric bill. 

    The PUC also makes decisions that shape the state’s energy policies. After a delay of nearly a year, the commission rejected the state’s triennial energy efficiency resource plan on Nov. 12. It was the state’s most ambitious energy efficiency plan to date, and proposed spending $350 million over the next three years. That would have come from increasing the system benefits charge on ratepayers’ electric bills by a few dollars a month. The plan was supported by the state’s utilities, consumer advocate and clean energy advocates, who agreed that it would decrease energy use and save residents money in the long-term.

    Instead, the new plan would bring the rates that fund energy efficiency programs down over the next three years. But Kreis, the consumer advocate, has said he will submit a motion for rehearing, the first step towards an appeal to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

  • A new PUC chair has been confirmed, and two new commissioners have been nominated. That has some in the energy sector hopeful that decisions will be made quickly in other dockets, including grid modernization, and undertaking rule-making for community power aggregation programs.

Other Players: 

  • Office of the Consumer Advocate: Unlike the PUC or DOE, this office doesn’t have the authority to enact policies or changes, but does advocate for the interests of any utility customer “at any tribunal,” according to Kreis, New Hampshire’s consumer advocate since 2016. 
  • Utilities: These investor-owned companies aren’t part of the government, but “they are the biggest elephant in the room in terms of power,” said Kelly Buchanan, director of regulatory affairs at Clean Energy New Hampshire. With big budgets, expert staff and a lot of knowledge, Buchanan said “it really matters what they propose to do in their rate cases or in other dockets. Advocates, stakeholders and state government can push hard for things that we think are important for them to do, but, boy, is it so much easier when the utilities are excited and ready to do those things as well.” The utilities operating in New Hampshire are Eversource Energy, Liberty Utilities, Unitil Energy Systems, and the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative. 
  • Local communities: Many local communities are also finding ways to establish their own energy policies and goals for renewables in electricity, transportation and heating. For example, Keene, Hanover, Cornish, Plainfield, Concord and Peterborough have committed to transitioning to 100% renewable electricity by 2030. Much of that work happens through energy committees or sustainability committees within those towns. Several communities have either approved or are looking into community power programs, which would allow them to buy energy in bulk on behalf of residents and businesses. 

    This year, Sununu signed legislation allowing New Hampshire municipalities to net meter up to 5 MW of energy, which could encourage new municipal renewable energy projects. But some advocates say this new policy has a limitation that might make it hard for municipalities to use: these projects have to be sited within the community that would use that energy. There’s some discussion about introducing modifications to that 2021 bill in the upcoming legislative session.

New Hampshire has a 10-year energy strategy, which lays out the state’s energy policy and priorities, and makes recommendations to legislators and other policymakers. It’s updated every three years. The DOE is currently in the process of reviewing input, analyzing data and drafting revisions, according to deputy commissioner Ellms. He says he expects the latest update to the state’s strategy to be released in the coming months.

You can read the 2014 state energy strategy here, and the 2018 update to that plan here

There’s also an energy policy written in statute, which focuses on meeting energy demand at the lowest cost, ensuring reliability and fuel diversity and energy efficiency, protecting health and the environment and utility finances. But some stakeholders have said that those policies were never very strict or specific in how they were applied.

Former Public Utilities commissioner Kate Bailey told NHPR earlier this year that the state could clarify its energy priorities moving forward.

"I don't think that there was a real, formed energy policy other than we have high rates and we need to get them lower. That was the energy policy," she said.

Many activists and advocates are pushing for stronger state policies as we confront climate change in New Hampshire.


What does New Hampshire’s energy future look like? 

Demand for electricity is expected to rise. As it does, New England is expected to develop new renewable sources of energy.

The increase in demand is mostly due to the projected electrification of heating (think heat pumps) and transportation (electric cars). And with those sources accounting for the largest share of New Hampshire's greenhouse gas emissions, more electrification could be good news for those in the Granite State hoping to reduce the state’s impact on climate change.

Other developments in New England could have transformative effects on the regional grid. New transmission lines may bring more hydropower from Quebec, and in a few years, the first wind turbines will come online off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. Many more offshore wind projects are in the works.

With these changes come concerns about grid reliability and meeting peak demand.

Renewable resources like wind and solar are just-in-time resources — the availability of their energy depends on the blowing wind and the shining sun. Natural gas, which New England’s grid relies on heavily, is also a just-in-time resource, as it comes through interstate pipelines just in time to be used.

The increasing popularity of just-in-time resources has raised questions for ISO-New England about meeting electricity demand during peak times, especially on cold days when natural gas is also used for heating. Merrimack Station, the region’s last coal-fired power plant, often runs on those cold days to help meet energy demand.

Extreme weather events, which scientists say will increase as the climate changes, could also impact grid reliability. Weather could create major challenges for energy systems, which must “harden” the grid to withstand storms, wildfires, cold, and more.

Rolling blackouts, like those that happened in Texas last winter, are one example of what can happen when extreme weather hits. New England’s system is different from Texas', but faces the challenges of wetter weather and worse storms.

As the grid transforms, ISO-New England says they’re working to maintain reliability as the region moves toward decarbonization, and they’re studying the future of grid reliability.

Battery storage and powerline projects in different states (which can be controversial) could improve grid reliability.

Efforts that reduce demand, like distributed generation and energy efficiency, can help limit the construction of new power plants to make up for the increased demand from electrification.

A chart which shows Projected Annual Energy Use With and without Energy efficiency and solar savings between 2021 and 2030. Three trend lines show projected regional energy use (the gross load forecast), the gross load forecast minus existing and anticipated behind-the-meter (BTM) solar photovoltaic resources (PV and the gross load forecast minus existing and anticipated BTM, PV and energy efficiency resources.
ISO-NE

State policies on energy efficiency, small-scale electricity producers, and renewables can have a big impact on the regional grid. So what’s happening in New Hampshire at the state level?

In New Hampshire, programs like NH Saves help reduce demand. But energy efficiency plans stalled for almost a full year in the Public Utilities Commission, before the commission decided to reject a plan to spend more on energy efficiency, and instead issued an order that would decrease the rates that fund those programs. Some New Hampshire legislators have pushed to limit the growth of energy efficiency programs, saying they act as a tax.

Energy efficiency programs can be particularly important for low-income households, which generally spend a larger portion of their income on energy. The PUC’s order on energy efficiency would also cut funding for programs serving low-income households.

Small-scale solar power is projected to more than double in New Hampshire over the next nine years, which helps reduce demand on the grid. Larger solar projects face hurdles in New Hampshire, like limits on how much power they can sell back to the grid. ISO-NE forecasts lower growth for solar photovoltaic development in New Hampshire than in other states.

Renewable portfolio standards have helped to drive the development of renewable energy in other states. These are requirements set by states for utilities to ensure a specific percentage of their electricity comes from renewable resources.

New Hampshire’s Renewable Portfolio Standards are the lowest in the region, meaning we may contribute less to the development of renewable energy on our shared grid.

A chart that shows how state renewable portfolio standards are rising across New England. Vermont has the highest increases, New Hampshire has the lowest.
ISO- NE

With less guidance from New Hampshire’s state government on energy policy and emissions reductions, local communities have taken the lead in the Granite State.

The momentum in cities and towns to take action on energy and climate change has produced ambitious goals for renewable energy and investments in energy efficiency at the local level.

Towns and cities like Hanover, Lebanon, Keene and Harrisville, among others, are examples of communities making decisions about their local energy needs and futures. Some have set renewable energy goals, and all four have approved community power plans, which would allow them to purchase power in bulk on behalf of businesses and residents.

Advocates say that’s a way to get possibly cheaper, more sustainable electricity. State law, from 2019 and earlier this year, enabled local communities to pursue community power, and rulemaking at the PUC will hammer out the details so those programs can get up and running. Other changes, like the increase to the state’s municipal net metering cap, are encouraging communities to develop solar and hydropower projects.

Last month, Hanover cut the ribbon on a 1.72-megawatt ground-mounted solar array and announced they were close to powering the town’s electricity needs completely through renewable energy.

With every ton of carbon shaping our climate future, every community and every state can shape our future, too.


What other questions do you have about energy? What questions related to climate change in New Hampshire would you like NHPR to take on next? Email us