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N.H. will update its energy strategy soon. Will it align with the vision in the latest IPCC report?

Annie Ropeik
NHPR file

As New Hampshire’s new Department of Energy prepares to release their first update to the state’s 10-year energy strategy, a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows the world is on its way to surpass 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming unless leaders make immediate changes.

The report shows action is needed across sectors to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – from transitioning our energy system, to protecting natural ecosystems, to changing the way we use transportation.

“We're starting to already see heat waves here in New England that we had not seen in the past. Our winters are getting shorter. We are seeing spring arrive earlier,” said Rachel Cleetus, policy director of the Climate and Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Massachusetts.

“If we fail to curtail heat-trapping emissions, we're going to see extreme heat here in New England rise much more than it has done in the past. So we have a real moment here where, if we can sharply curtail our emissions, we can curtail those days of extreme heat.”

State leaders in New Hampshire have been slower than their counterparts in other parts of New England to create goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and supporting an energy transition.

The state’s energy strategy from 2018 directs leaders to implement policy “without admiration or animus to any particular technology,” saying the state should reduce emissions by allowing low-emissions resources that are economically competitive to enter the market without subsidies or mandates.

As the cost for renewable energy drops significantly, in some cases below the cost of fossil fuels, according to the IPCC, the upcoming update to the state energy strategy could shed light on where the state is headed on climate change mitigation efforts the IPCC says must happen swiftly.

The state's Department of Energy says their update to the strategy is on track to be released soon.

How New Hampshire measures up on current climate change measures 

The IPCC is clear that sub-national actors, like state and local leaders, are important contributors to climate change mitigation.

Rob Werner is the New Hampshire state director for the League of Conservation Voters, and he attended the latest United Nations climate conference in Glasgow. He says the role of Granite Staters is clear in the fight against climate change.

“No matter the goals that are made, whether they're global or national or by state, it's really going to happen on the local level. That's where the action really comes to the fore and where things need to happen,” said Rob Werner.

Municipal energy committees have been a powerful force in the energy transition in New Hampshire. But, advocates including Werner say local communities are constrained by a lack of support from leaders at the state level.

New Hampshire is the only state in New England that doesn’t mandate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions across the economy, and our latest climate action plan is from 2009.

The state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard for new renewable energy sources, which determines how much renewable energy electricity suppliers must provide to customers, is the lowest in the region.

And though New Hampshire is ahead of much of the country on energy efficiency, the Granite State is last in New England, according to a 2020 scorecard from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

“We have the technology and we have the financial resources to make the switch. So it's not a technical problem… and it's certainly not a problem of financial resources,” Werner said. “It's really a political issue. It's a political choice, really.”

Where clean energy advocates see the most potential for New Hampshire

Many advocates for climate change mitigation efforts have identified two big areas to focus on in New Hampshire: transportation and home heating.

Transportation accounts for the largest share of New Hampshire’s greenhouse gas emissions, and residential emissions, mostly from home heating, come in second. By electrifying those two sectors – for example, by building out electric vehicle infrastructure and installing more heat pumps – Granite Staters could reduce fossil fuel use significantly.

Energy efficiency and weatherization programs were stabilized by recent legislation, after the Public Utilities Commission rejected a three-year plan to expand efficiency efforts in the state.

The new energy efficiency law – a bipartisan compromise – sets the rates that fund those programs at their 2020 levels, with modest yearly increases. But it doesn’t require the Public Utilities Commission to follow the Energy Efficiency Resource Standard, in which the state would set goals for energy efficiency and then determine the budget needed to achieve those goals.

For Rob Werner, making a long-lasting investment in energy efficiency is paramount to reducing emissions – and costs – in New Hampshire.

“The failure to make these significant and long-lasting and consistent investments in energy efficiency are costing our consumers. And it is truly money out of our pockets,” he said.

For electric vehicles, the state is expected to receive $17 million in federal funds from the bipartisan infrastructure law that would support EV charging and ownership in the state over the next five years. There are also funds set aside from a settlement with Volkswagen. And according to a forecast from ISO-New England, New Hampshire could have 56,600 electric vehicles by 2030 – a sharp increase from the 3,500 forecast for 2022.

The state’s 2018 energy strategy focused on incremental improvements to energy efficiency in the transportation sector, saying the state should “seek to reduce the energy intensity of transportation activities without discouraging the activities themselves.”

Authors of the plan focused on options like small-scale on-demand transportation solutions, like Lyft and Uber, as a way to increase energy efficiency in the transportation sector, and encouraged a focus on “behavioral, rather than hardware, improvements,” suggesting less aggressive acceleration and braking could lead to more energy efficiency.

The 2018 plan expresses anticipation for a growing electric vehicle market, but says private entities are better positioned than state governments for investments in electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

Roger Stephenson, the Northeast regional advocacy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, is hoping to see a stronger emphasis on electric vehicle infrastructure in the upcoming energy strategy update.

“There are significant changes in the national and international marketplace that have to be reflected in the transportation chapter of the new energy strategy,” he said.

“If we can update the transportation energy strategy in that ten year plan, we can do a lot to reduce emissions.”

What about big, new infrastructure, like wind?

The IPCC says the cost of renewable energy technologies, including offshore wind, have gone down significantly. And though deployment of those technologies is increasing, it’s still not enough to meet climate goals.

In New Hampshire, there’s a lot of enthusiasm for offshore wind – Gov. Chris Sununu has been a vocal supporter – and bringing a new renewable energy source to the Gulf of Maine could be a big lever to move the region’s economy toward clean energy.

But New Hampshire is not seeing much action yet, said Rob Werner.

“Governor Sununu certainly has championed offshore wind, but we need to have more than a champion verbally. We need to put that into practice around actual policies that procure offshore wind, that make those commitments and work with companies to actually have bids on particular projects. And that's what's going on in Massachusetts and Connecticut and all down the East Coast,” he said.

A report released in February shows New Hampshire could be an “attractive” place to connect offshore wind generators to New England’s electricity grid, but the state would need to upgrade its infrastructure to connect with large amounts of wind power. The state is working on another study of the impacts of offshore wind on energy systems, the economy, and the environment.

New Hampshire state senator David Watters sponsored two bills in the legislature that lay some groundwork for offshore wind in New Hampshire – one that would authorize the Public Utilities Commission to approve power purchase agreements for wind energy, and another that would direct the Commission to ensure requirements about the impact of wind power are met when approving those agreements. Both bills have passed the state Senate and are in the Science, Technology and Energy committee in the state’s House of Representatives.

How we mitigate climate change is an equity issue. What’s going on in N.H.?

The IPCC says equity and justice are essential factors to consider in fair and effective climate policymaking for climate mitigation efforts. But some technologies that help individuals reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save money on energy in the long run can be prohibitively expensive up front – like new electric vehicles or residential solar panels.

In New Hampshire, one way clean energy technologies can benefit those who might not be able to put solar on their own homes – because of the shape of their roof, trees around their building, or financial barriers – is community solar, said Jude Nuru, director of community solar initiatives at ReVision Energy.

“The idea is to provide a kind of a co-ownership,” Nuru said, “where all these individuals who otherwise wouldn't have access to that on their own are able to be part of that community solar and enjoy the benefits of clean energy.”

According to a 2020 report from the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission, 16% of the state’s renewable energy fund has been allocated to a grant program for community solar projects in low and moderate income communities since 2018, and those projects have provided benefits to participating households. The commission claims the program has “reduced or eliminated market barriers to solar energy that [low and moderate income] residential customers face.”

But there are market challenges that make it harder to do community solar in New Hampshire at the scale that ReVision has implemented in other states. Nuru said a low net metering value, a cap on the amount of electricity that can be net metered, a lack of incentives, limited rebates, expensive interconnection charges, and the low price of renewable energy certificates in the state all contribute to an unfriendly environment for community solar projects.

And advocates say Sununu has historically been more talk than action on programs and funds that would bring lower-income communities into the clean energy transition.

Currently, a bill that would develop a process for identifying customers who could participate in solar programs and a selection process for participating households is moving through the legislature.

This IPCC report is focused on mitigation. So what can individual people in the Granite State do?

The IPCC says changes in lifestyle and behavior can help reduce carbon emissions between 40% and 70% by 2050, but policy and infrastructure changes are needed to support changes in things like how we get around town, what food we buy and eat and how we get heat in the winter.

Limiting the use of cars by walking and cycling, or transitioning to electric vehicles, could make large contributions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Limiting travel on airplanes, reducing use of appliances, and shifting towards a plant-based diet also contributes to climate change mitigation, the IPCC says.

Wealthy individuals contribute disproportionately to high greenhouse gas emissions, and have the highest potential to make a big impact on greenhouse gas emissions, the IPCC says. And in their professional lives, people can play a crucial role in moving towards greener standards and practices, in any sector.

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

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