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How NH lawmakers are addressing high energy prices this session

Allegra Boverman for NHPR

As the cost of energy remains higher than ever for many Granite Staters, state lawmakers are considering a variety of efforts to ease the burden on ratepayers.

The high cost of energy is largely due to global market trends. Utility companies pass down the cost of power and fuel to customers, and the energy sources New Hampshire relies on – particularly natural gas – have spiked in price.

Last fall, state legislators approved an emergency statewide fuel and electricity assistance program that can help more Granite Staters with their energy bills.

This session, lawmakers are exploring policy outside of aid to address high energy costs. State lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say this is a tough issue – there’s no “silver bullet” to lowering costs. But state policy and programs can help.

Bills in play

In the Senate, there’s a bipartisan effort to address procurement practices, or how utility companies purchase the electricity that many of us consume.

Right now, utilities must buy that power every six months. But other organizations that don’t have to follow that strict schedule, like the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative, have had lower rates throughout the last several months. The bill would have the utilities go out and make a “power purchase agreement” – a longer-term contract that could stabilize prices and might help lower costs. It would also require that the utilities make those agreements with renewable energy generators.

“It is a way hopefully to enhance the supply of energy,” said Senate President Jeb Bradley, a Republican representing Wolfeboro. “That is the biggest problem that we're having at the end of the pipeline in New England.”

Bradley said a second effort he supports to encourage more supply of energy is a House bill to change the regulatory process for choosing and approving where new energy facilities, like solar arrays or transmission lines, will be located. That bill is sponsored by House Republican Michael Vose, the chair of the Science, Technology and Energy Committee.

The state’s siting process has been criticized for years. Bradley says changing it could help drive down costs.

“That would be very helpful again, in encouraging the kind of resources that we need, both transmission and generation,” he said. “As you have more supply, you're going to have lower costs.”

Other bills in the Senate could also make changes that might support more energy supply, said Sen. David Watters, who said one of his big priorities this session, along with supporting energy efficiency, was “getting power to the people.”

“We should be able in New Hampshire to make our own choices, to get renewable energy with battery storage and to be able to go into a market place and have a free market there and competition so that we can take charge of our own energy use.”

One way to do that, Watters said, is through expanded net metering. One Senate bill would allow colleges, universities, hospitals, and housing authorities to get compensated for renewable energy projects they build, like small solar arrays.

Watters also said community power programs, which let municipalities procure electricity for their residents and are set to start in some places this spring, could also help give residents more control over energy costs. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed excitement about those programs and their potential to lower expenses.

Meanwhile in the House, bills that would make smaller changes to rates have gained prominence in the wake of high prices.

Two bills, both now tabled, addressed tradeoffs between rebating a few dollars each month to consumers and using funding for longer-term renewable energy or energy efficiency programs.

One bill would give about $1.50 per month back to ratepayers out of the state’s renewable energy fund.

Another would eliminate the rebates to consumers that come from auctions held by the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative – an effort by 12 states to cap and reduce emissions from power plants. That amounts to about $25 to $45 dollars a year for the average ratepayer right now, according to testimony from Republican Rep. Jeanine Notter. Under the bill, that money would instead go toward energy efficiency.

Rep. Vose said his caucus is focused on making those smaller cuts, and ensuring existing rebates remain.

“It just seems to be to some of us that we have to moderate what we spend up front, even though it might mean sacrificing some of the long range benefits, because ultimately energy efficiency should be the responsibility of every citizen,” he said.

For Rep. Rebecca McWilliams, a Democrat representing Concord who sponsored the effort to move rebated funds into energy efficiency, the issue is an example of the tensions between short and long-term thinking on energy.

“On the Democratic side, really what we're looking at is a long-term energy strategy. So instead of what we consider to be robbing money from our long-term energy efficiency funds, we would prefer to fully fund energy efficiency and provide more dollars for people to go to New Hampshire Saves and do insulation projects, weatherization, make their homes much more efficient for holding in the heat” she said.

Barriers to progress

Lawmakers say there are some barriers to addressing high energy costs through state government.

One is the role of federal policy – some lawmakers said federal policy, either under previous or current administrations, has held the state back or contributed to high costs.

Another, some said, is the gap between ideologies of Republicans and Democrats when it comes to energy. Rep. McWilliams said that was particularly an issue in the House.

“The discussion is still very polarized in terms of short term and long term and in terms of supporting our current [fuel] mix, which is heavily reliant on natural gas, versus building a strategy to increase renewables in New Hampshire,” she said.

Others said a lack of long-term planning in the state of New Hampshire around energy has contributed to the issue.

“New Hampshire finds itself in a position where it doesn't have any good answers right now because we haven't done a comprehensive economic and energy plan in quite some time, if ever,” said Chris Skoglund, director of energy transition at the advocacy group Clean Energy New Hampshire.

The state’s latest climate action plan is from 2009. The Department of Energy’s 10-year strategy, which was released last summer, outlined the state’s goals of energy affordability and a technology-neutral approach to policy. The Department said the strategy was meant to be a “set of principles and goals,” but does not outline a timeline or outcomes.

“What we don't have is any sort of coordinated, comprehensive planning process. Instead, we've got a lot of disparate efforts,” Skoglund said. “What I think we could benefit from is upfront investment in coordinated planning.”

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