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Sununu announces new energy assistance plan, with N.H. electricity rates expected to double


Gov. Chris Sununu presented a new plan for energy assistance Wednesday, after New Hampshire utilities announced that prices for electricity are expected to rise sharply starting in August.

The plan includes additional funds for energy assistance for low income Granite Staters and for the state’s Electric Assistance Program. But the bulk of it is a $60 million fund dedicated to one-time credits for almost all ratepayers in New Hampshire. About 600,000 residents would get $100 towards their electric bills automatically, Sununu said.

The proposal still needs to go through a legislative process for approval.

According to estimates from Eversource, an average ratepayer could rack up around $420 in extra electricity costs between August and January, when the rate would change again. The company says energy supply prices are reaching all-time highs, and that’s why they’re doubling their rates.

“This is hitting everybody in a very, very severe way. And it impacts day to day life. And really, folks are going to be having to make very tough decisions at the kitchen table when they're balancing their checkbooks month to month and day to day,” Sununu said.

Last week, New Hampshire’s congressional delegation called for the state to dedicate leftover federal funds to lowering energy costs for residents. But the funding for much of the plan comes from a surplus of state money, Sununu said.

In a statement on Sununu’s proposal announced Wednesday, members of New Hampshire’s congressional delegation pointed out their efforts to secure funding for New Hampshire through the American Rescue Plan and increase LIHEAP funding.

“The state needs to continue to explore additional ways to leverage remaining federal relief funds to support Granite Staters,” they said.

The cause of high prices 

Eversource, the state’s largest electric utility, said the war in Ukraine, increased demand for energy, and extreme weather in gas-producing states are causing electricity prices to spike, as the cost of fossil fuels rises globally.

The Ukrainian conflict and increased demand are also driving the surge in gas prices.

The state’s reliance on natural gas, a fossil fuel, is contributing to the price fluctuations Granite Staters are seeing, according to the state’s consumer advocate, Don Kreis.

Natural gas accounts for more than half of New England’s electricity generation. In May, gas was the most expensive it’s been since 2008, reaching $8 per thousand cubic feet. Two years ago, that price was $1.95 per thousand cubic feet, according to CBS.

Looking toward long-term solutions 

Kreis, who has been in his position since 2016, said the rate increase expected for August is the most drastic he’s seen in his time as consumer advocate. In an interview with NHPR last week, he turned his attention to long-term solutions, saying using different kinds of fuel – principally renewable energy like wind and solar – is one thing that could help with price volatility.

“I think what we need is more diversity,” he said. “And, you know, the environmentalists in the world will point out that that's what we need to do because of climate change. I'm not talking about climate change. I'm just talking about keeping rates as low as they possibly can be.”

Kreis said “doubling down” on energy efficiency and community power aggregation – where municipalities buy power for residents instead of utility companies – could also have a big impact.

Advocates and some New Hampshire Democrats say more could have been done this legislative session to support longer term solutions that would move New Hampshire away from fossil fuels.

On Wednesday, the governor touted his vetoes of a number of bills that would have supported clean energy efforts like the Transportation Climate Initiative, or subsidies to solar developers as an example of his approach to reducing energy costs in New Hampshire.

At the same time, Sununu said that clean energy, like offshore wind and hydropower, are part of the solution to lowering energy prices.

“A transition to renewable energy is the long-term solution for everybody, but it has to be a transition,” he said. “It's not going to happen in five or just ten years. It's going to happen over time. And in New Hampshire, our goal is to do it at the right pace such that we can make those investments, create that infrastructure without overburdening the ratepayers.”

When asked what planning the state is doing to facilitate that transition, Sununu referenced the Department of Energy’s 10-year strategy, which is overdue for an update. Department representatives said it would be released soon.

How to connect with electric assistance

Granite Staters looking for assistance with energy bills can apply through their local Community Action Agency. Residents can apply for the Electric Assistance Program year-round, or for assistance with heating fuel for the winter months.

The winter fuel assistance program is set to open early this year, in November, according to Gov. Sununu. He said the state is also looking to increase assistance available during the winter.

Terra Rogers, director of energy services at Southwestern Community Services, said in an interview last week that her agency is getting ready to help with energy needs.

“We are anticipating that there are going to be additional people applying for us and individuals that are in really tough situations. And we hope that some of the programs that we do have at the agency will be able to help them,” she said.

Nationally, high energy prices have a disproportionate impact on lower-income households, which generally spend a higher proportion of their income on electricity and heating.

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

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