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Sununu signs N.H. energy efficiency bill, restoring programs after PUC order

Gov. Chris Sununu signs House Bill 549
Mara Hoplamazian for NHPR
Gov. Chris Sununu signs House Bill 549

On Thursday, Gov. Chris Sununu signed H.B. 549, a compromise bill that gained bipartisan support after the state’s Public Utilities Commission made major cuts to the state’s energy efficiency programs.

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The bill was pushed by many as a way to resolve the confusion and disruption resulting from a Public Utilities Commission ruling on energy efficiency.

In November, the commission rejected a 3-year plan that would have expanded energy efficiency programs in the state, and instead decided to cut the rates that fund those programs and make other major changes to how energy efficiency is structured.

The bill Sununu signed Thursday restores the structures of energy efficiency programs to what they looked like on Jan. 1, 2021, before the PUC’s order. It also sets the rates that fund energy efficiency in New Hampshire in state law.

Sununu said the new law would have immediate impacts.

“We're sitting here in very cold weather. We've got a blizzard coming in tomorrow. People can feel the effects of a lack of weatherization programs when it's cold outside. It's just about affecting folks at a very real level,” he said.

Sununu also said energy efficiency efforts are a “huge piece of the puzzle” in “looking at climate change as a whole” in New Hampshire. Energy efficiency can help mitigate climate change by reducing consumption of fossil fuels.

The signing of the bill comes after the PUC issued an order suspending parts of its November decision and restoring energy efficiency funding to 2020 levels, following a challenge in the New Hampshire Supreme Court by the state’s consumer advocate.

At the signing, Kelly Buchanan, legislative and regulatory affairs director for the advocacy group Clean Energy New Hampshire, said the legislation filled a hole.

“We were handed an order that was catastrophic. So while we don't have the ambitious plan that everyone was supportive of… we have an emergency vehicle to establish consistent funding that helps our programs be future-proofed and to ensure that we can continue offering at least the basics,” she said.

For Bill Newell, who owns the energy efficiency company Newell and Crathern, the signing represented security for his 25 employees.

“It was touch and go for a while when we got shut down,” he said. “We managed to keep everyone employed, and now the future is bright. For me, the company, and the employees.”

The bill moved through the legislature quickly, gaining widespread support. It was championed by Democratic Sen. David Watters and Republican Rep. Michael Vose, who flanked Sununu at Thursday’s signing.

“It's a win for everybody,” said Rep. Vose. “It's typical legislation that nobody loves, but also nobody hates…. HB 549 does some things that Republicans have wanted to do for a while, but it also fixes some things that Democrats were very upset about,” he said.

Here is what the bill does:

  • Sets the rates that fund energy efficiency in New Hampshire – the system benefits charge on electricity bills and the local distribution adjustment charge on gas bills – at 2020 levels. The 2020 rates are the highest rates New Hampshire has seen. The bill sets those rates to increase every year using the 3-year average of the Consumer Price Index, plus 0.25%. 
  • Restores other components of New Hampshire’s energy efficiency framework, including performance incentive payments utilities can receive, to what was in effect on January 1, 2021, before the Public Utilities Commission issued their order. 
  • Sets the deadline for utility companies to make new filings with the Public Utilities Commission on March 1, 2022, and sets a deadline of July 1, 2023 for utilities to file the next 3-year plan. 
  • Sets deadlines for the Public Utilities Commission to issue orders in response to utility company filings. 
  • Has the Public Utilities Commission use the Granite State Test as the primary measure of cost-effectiveness for energy efficiency plans. The test measures the costs of energy efficiency programs with the benefits that energy efficiency provides. This contradicts the PUC’s November order, in which the commission said the test was “overly dependent on subjective factors” and too complicated for the general public to understand.
  • Changes the duties of the state’s Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Energy Board, removing from statute that the board is responsible for setting energy efficiency goals and developing a plan for energy system economic and environmental sustainability. Don Kreis, the state’s consumer advocate and a member of that board, said that part of the bill “cleans up certain long since accomplished objectives of the board that relate to when the board was first founded more than a decade ago.”

Here’s what the bill doesn’t do:

  • Put the Energy Efficiency Resource Standard into state law. In an interview earlier this month, Raymond Burke, an attorney with New Hampshire Legal Assistance representing LISTEN, said it doesn’t address the core issue of the PUC’s reversal on the energy efficiency framework in New Hampshire. “It does not require the PUC to follow the framework of the Energy Efficiency Resource Standard, which is really where you set your [energy] savings goals first and then determine what budget is needed to achieve those goals,” he said.
  • Address the cap on per-project funds available for energy efficiency projects in the income-qualified NH Saves program.

Other challenges to the PUC’s November order are still pending in the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

To learn more about those challenges, the Public Utilities Commission’s order, and energy efficiency programs in New Hampshire, visit our blog.

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.
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