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Tensions run high over future of energy facility siting in New Hampshire

Annie Ropeik
/
NHPR

This story was originally produced by the New Hampshire Bulletin, an independent local newsroom that allows NHPR and other outlets to republish its reporting.

Decisions regarding the permitting of new energy facilities could change hands in New Hampshire if lawmakers choose to dissolve the state’s current process and move responsibilities to the Public Utilities Commission.

On Tuesday, Rep. Michael Vose, the prime sponsor of House Bill 609 and chairman of the House Science, Technology, and Energy Committee, controlled the hearing on his own legislative effort, which was front-loaded with testimony of support from state agencies, labor unions, Eversource, and business officials. Members of the public, mostly in opposition, weren’t given a chance to speak until more than two hours in.

“I fear there’s a lot of money in this room, and I fear we’re being manipulated,” said Karen Payne, an Effingham resident who called out Vose for a perceived quashing of public input. Moments prior, when Payne was called to testify, Vose said he’d be imposing a two-minute time limit for speakers going forward.

Outbursts from hearing attendees in the back of the room prompted him to backpedal.

Constituents opposed to HB 609 are concerned over what they see as a reduction in public participation in hugely consequential energy infrastructure projects. That, and a consolidation of power in the PUC, a three-member body appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Executive Council.

Meanwhile, officials from the Department of Energy, Department of Environmental Services, Office of the Consumer Advocate, and Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire have all expressed ardent support for the effort aimed at modernizing and streamlining how the state evaluates energy facility projects – something agreed upon as necessary by all parties testifying Tuesday.

The question is how.

For decades, the Site Evaluation Committee, a regulatory review and permitting body with representation from multiple sectors, has had jurisdiction over any new energy facility that generates more than 30 megawatts of electricity. Weighing environmental impacts against energy needs, the SEC has purview over natural gas, oil, coal, and transmission facilities, as well as renewable energy projects.

If passed, HB 609 would do away with the SEC and move permitting to the PUC. Less than a decade ago, significant changes were made to the SEC’s process and membership by adding more public participation, two more public members, and the requirement that the committee make a specific finding that a project is in the public interest for it to move forward.

But inefficiencies have persisted. Legislative committees have since focused on additional reform. In 2021, a committee recommended a complete overhaul of the SEC and scrapping it long-term.

While introducing the bill, Vose, a Republican from Epping, said the SEC has a lack of institutional knowledge, sparse technical expertise, turnover, and a dearth of funding and dedicated support staff. Moving jurisdiction to the PUC, he said, would professionalize the site evaluation process, making it more timely and efficient with increased resources and staffing.

Bringing many of the organizational issues to the forefront was the proposed 192-mile Northern Pass electricity transmission project, which was ultimately denied approval by the SEC in 2018 after three years of proceedings and many delays. While opponents of the project were delighted by the outcome, in the end, millions of dollars were spent on a drawn-out process with almost nothing to show.

Who serves on the Site Evaluation Committee? Why should it change?

The Site Evaluation Committee includes five members of the public; all three Public Utilities commissioners; and commissioners from the Department of Environmental Services, Department of Business and Economic Affairs, Department of Transportation, and Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

The SEC’s schedule is based on submitted applications, meaning some years can see a flurry of activity while others see none at all.

SEC Administrator Drew Biemer, the entity’s one staff member, supports the changes proposed by HB 609. Other states are benefitting disproportionately from grid modernization and renewable energy, he said, and the main roadblock in New Hampshire is “uncertainty in the process itself.”

Biemer said the public and all stakeholders must be “afforded their rightful place at the table,” and he testified it was his opinion that public input wouldn’t be changed under the proposed bill.

Department of Energy Deputy Commissioner Chris Ellms called it “common sense reform” that’s “not taking any side,” but rather improving the effectiveness of a process.

For the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire, it’s a top priority, added President and CEO Michael Skelton. He told the committee that further site evaluation reform would “help the state to attract investments in energy supply infrastructure and renewable energy sources, which has potential to lower energy costs.”

Public upset about handling of hearing

Members of the public were vocally upset about how Tuesday’s hearing was conducted.

Nancy Martland, who drove from Sugar Hill to testify, said what she witnessed over two hours “reinforced” her thoughts that the bill “is paving the way for energy developers to steamroll over the residents of our state.”

She took issue with “three people in Concord,” referencing the PUC, making decisions that affect residents across the state.

Martland said she was there for “the little guy,” and joined others in calling for more public representation in the proposed structure. Vose contests his bill isn’t any deviation from how the public currently participates in SEC proceedings.

Meredith Hatfield, representing the Nature Conservancy, noted the SEC is mandated to deliberate in public, while under the state right-to-know law, the PUC has an exception. She was also concerned about language in the bill that “allows public counsel to be a discretionary decision” of the Department of Energy or PUC.

Waving papers in the air and raising his voice, Mark McCullock, a North Stratford resident who was staunchly opposed to the Northern Pass project, said he was “ashamed” by what he’d seen at the hearing.

Along with more than 300 constituents who registered their opposition to the bill online, the Appalachian Mountain Club, Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, Audubon Society of New Hampshire, and Conservation Law Foundation all oppose HB 609.

In an email blast last week, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests said the bill would, at the very least, “undo much of the work of the broad stakeholder process in 2014 and 2015 that led to significant improvements in the law and rules that governed the SEC,” and at its worst, “reduce the public’s ability to engage in the siting review process.”

Due to time constraints, the House Science, Technology, and Energy Committee continued the public hearing on HB 609 to Monday, March 13.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

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