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Where they stand: Sununu and Sherman on energy, climate change, and the environment

photo of Sherman and Sununu onstage during a debate hosted by NHPR last week.
Zoey Knox
Sen. Sherman, left, and Gov. Sununu onstage during a debate hosted by NHPR last week.

New Hampshire is experiencing major changes – from less snowpack to rising seas – as the burning of fossil fuels warms up the earth. But climate change and environmental issues have taken a back seat throughout the race for governor in New Hampshire, despite voter interest.

Meanwhile, energy costs for Granite Staters have skyrocketed, with many going into the winter facing hundreds of extra dollars in monthly heating and electricity bills.

Incumbent Gov. Chris Sununu and state Sen. Tom Sherman have each made energy a part of their campaign, placing blame on the other’s approach to the renewable energy transition for high energy prices.

Sununu has focused on his efforts to lower energy costs by charting a different path than most New England states, opposing climate initiatives that neighboring states have adopted and vetoing a variety of legislation related to the energy transition. He’s also promoting his support for the fledgling offshore wind industry.

Sherman, meanwhile, says the state should focus on supporting clean energy resources, saying those would both help fight climate change and help lower costs for ratepayers.

Here’s where they stand.

Energy prices

Electricity rates have gone up in New Hampshire largely due to New England’s reliance on natural gas – a fossil fuel – to generate power, and the volatile nature of global natural gas markets. But Sununu and Sherman – and their parties – have pointed fingers at one another.

Sununu has positioned the interests of New Hampshire ratepayers at odds with the renewable energy transition already underway in other New England states.

In a press conference this summer on a new statewide energy assistance program, he promoted his opposition to the Transportation Climate Initiative and efforts to raise the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, claiming those efforts would have raised rates even more.

He also blamed high rates on federal policies on renewable energy. Sununu said other New England states’ policies on renewables were causing higher electricity bills for their residents, and that the region should focus on getting more natural gas into New England.

Sununu has touted his vetoes on a number of energy bills Sherman supported – from net metering legislation to a bill that would have stopped residential electricity rebates and instead used that money for energy efficiency – saying they would have made energy more expensive for residents.

Sherman points to Sununu’s vetoes as evidence that the governor’s approach to energy has made things more expensive for Granite Staters.

“He has put us in a position where we are so dependent on fossil fuels, we have few energy options,” Sherman said in late September on the talk show Good Morning New Hampshire. “Now when we have forces beyond our control that are really impacting the fossil fuel market, we’re getting clobbered. And that’s directly on the Governor’s lack of action and the actions he’s taken.”

In a policy proposal to lower costs, Sherman says he would “expand American energy,” increasing funding for low-income energy efficiency programs, hastening offshore wind production, and making it easier for residents to “expand their energy options.”

The effects of the renewable energy transition on ratepayers remain to be seen, but researchers and advocates say electrification and renewables show promise for driving down energy costs.

A study in Massachusetts found ratepayers could see a 13% decrease in electric rates by 2050 by building out a mix of offshore wind and solar and retaining some gas-powered generation.

And in Maine, renewables have already driven down rates for some customers, according to the state’s Public Utilities Commission

The climate connection

Reducing the use of fossil fuels and improving energy efficiency are two changes experts say we must make to avoid increasingly dire consequences from climate change.

New Hampshire remains the only New England state without a mandate for greenhouse gas reductions, and has the lowest renewable energy requirements in the region.

New Hampshire's renewable portfolio standard is the lowest in the region
ISO-New England
New Hampshire's renewable portfolio standard is the lowest in the region

Sununu’s stance on climate change – both its causes and the efficacy of proposed solutions – has shifted over time. In his race for governor in 2016, he cast doubt on accepted climate science. By 2018, he was on board with scientific consensus: “Look man-made emissions have a part to play in climate change. Yes. Fact. Done. Let’s move on,” he said on NHPR’s The Exchange.

Earlier this summer, Sununu acknowledged that a transition to renewable energy “is the long term solution” when asked how to address increasing energy costs caused by fossil fuel markets.

But that wouldn’t be something he said he’d be quick to implement.

“It has to be a transition. It's not going to happen in five or just ten years,” he said. “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.”

The new Department of Energy’s strategy under Sununu’s administration has prioritized affordability and a technology-neutral, market-driven approach to energy policy. It says New Hampshire should address climate change by achieving a market where low-emission resources can compete without government intervention.

Though the cost of renewables is dropping, the strategy asserts renewable energy technologies are not yet able to compete at scale, and says carbon-based fuels are “likely to remain the most prominent overall fuel type of New Hampshire’s resource mix for decades.”

The Sherman campaign’s list of priorities doesn’t include a specific reference to climate change. But the Senator is on the advisory board of New Hampshire Healthcare Workers for Climate Action, which works with those in the healthcare industry to advocate for climate solutions.

“We are deeply concerned by the impact of climate change on individual and community health,” he said at an event for the organization late last year.

In his priority statements, Sherman emphasizes the benefits of clean energy for the environment while also making the case that solar, wind, and hydro, along with energy efficiency and weatherization programs, would make power cheaper for Granite Staters.

“We must do everything possible at the local, state, and federal level to combat the climate crisis,” Sherman said in a statement to NHPR, advocating for a “multi-pronged” approach to reducing reliance on fossil fuels, and supporting the creation of regional climate resilience plans to mitigate the impacts that have already started.

Net metering

One energy battleground for Sununu and Sherman is net metering – a way for electricity customers who have their own renewables, like rooftop solar panels, to get compensated for the power they produce.

Sununu signed a 5-megawatt net metering cap into law that only applied to municipalitieslast year, after vetoing efforts to expand net metering in 2018, 2019 and 2020 that would have included individuals and businesses. In veto messages on those three bills, Sununu said he was rejecting the legislation because ratepayers would disproportionately bear the cost of net metering.

In a statement, Sununu’s campaign said state regulators and the Department of Energy needed time to “make sure that our policy decisions make sense for New Hampshire’s ratepayers before further changes move forward.”

Sherman supports the expansion of net metering for individuals and businesses, and says the state should start by raising the cap on net metering to 5 megawatts.

“An increased cap will further incentivize the development of new renewable projects. We know from recent studies that there are significant savings for ratepayers when we add in renewable energy options. The longer we wait to act, the more it will hurt ratepayers,” he said in a statement to NHPR.

A recent study commissioned by the state found that more development of small-scale renewable systems compensated through net metering would have a small impact on electricity bills for those without renewables at home.

Offshore wind

Building offshore wind farms in the Gulf of Maine could be a big lever to transition New England to cleaner energy, and a report released in February said New Hampshire might be an “attractive” place to connect offshore wind generators to the regional grid, if the state could upgrade infrastructure to accommodate more power.

Both Sununu and Sherman have been vocal supporters of offshore wind, though some say the state has moved too slowly on the issue in recent years, particularly when it comes to procurement mandates – or a commitment to purchasing energy from offshore wind projects in the future.

Other states, like Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Jersey, have used procurement instruments called power purchase agreements and offshore wind renewable energy certificates to move offshore wind forward.

In a statement to NHPR, Sherman said procurement purchasing agreements are “one of our strongest tools” for moving offshore wind projects forward, but his support for procurement would depend on the terms of an agreement.

Sununu’s campaign did not respond to a question about whether the Governor would support that kind of procurement instrument in New Hampshire. In a debate hosted by NHPR, Sununu said the state hasn’t started procuring offshore wind yet because of the federal timeline for lease agreements.

Despite pressure from advocates to direct New Hampshire to invest in that way, Sununu has not issued the kinds of procurements many other East Coast states have, though he’s said power purchase agreements are a good idea.

Since 2019, Sununu has requested a state-federal offshore wind task force meant to help New Hampshire prepare for the development of the industry, signed an executive order creating offshore wind advisory boards and instructed state officials to produce a report on greenhouse gas reductions and infrastructure issues.

Sherman includes speeding up offshore wind production in his plan for lowering costs for Granite Staters. He supported bills in the last legislative session that would encourage New Hampshire’s adoption of offshore wind. One bill lays the groundwork for New Hampshire’s involvement in waters where it might be developed. Another includes criteria for state regulators to use when considering agreements to purchase that power.

Sununu signed both of those this summer.

Water issues

Both Sherman and Sununu have had to address PFAS contamination in New Hampshire throughout their careers. Sherman has been a main driver of New Hampshire’s efforts to regulate harmful PFAS chemicals, which have polluted drinking water in parts of New Hampshire. Sununu signed drinking water standards for those chemicals into law which, at the time, were some of the strictest in the nation.

Sununu came under fire from advocates recently over his veto of a bill that would have created stricter standards for landfills meant to protect water bodies in the state. Current rules say landfills need to be 200 feet from bodies of water, but the bill would have directed the state to calculate how long it would take for contaminated water to reach a body of water, instead.

Sherman sponsored that bill, and brought it up in a recent speaking event hosted by the New Hampshire Network, which works with environmental advocacy groups. He said right now, landfills are acting as long-term storage for PFAS chemicals, and they should be more secure.

“We have to make sure that however we store this waste, that it is not going to contaminate the environment, people's groundwater, drinking water or pristine lakes and rivers nearby,” he said. “I think that's something we should just set as the immediate bar.”

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