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New energy efficiency plans moving forward, with split Public Utilities Commission decision

 Power lines, electricity lines in New Hampshire.
Dan Tuohy
Power, utility lines in NH.

A new round of plans for energy efficiency programs in New Hampshire is set to take effect after two years of controversy.

The state’s Public Utilities Commission approved small changes to the $250 million program that helps Granite Staters with things like putting insulation in their home, or buying energy efficient appliances.

Energy efficiency is widely accepted as a way to reduce energy bills and fight climate change.

But two of the three commissioners, Daniel Goldner and Pradip Chattopadhyay, said in a majority opinion they were not ruling on the plan as a whole based on their interpretation of a 2022 state law that set the energy efficiency program budgets in statute.

The Public Utilities Commission has expressed skepticism of the state’s energy efficiency programs, which are managed by the utility companies Eversource, Unitil and Liberty along with the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative, in the past.

Those programs are funded for the most part by a charge of a few dollars on residents’ monthly energy bills called the System Benefits Charge.

In 2021, the commission rejected an ambitious plan to expand energy efficiency, and moved to slash the budgets for those programs, saying they were too expensive for ratepayers. Ahead of the filing of the most recent plan, commissioners issued a controversial report some said was meant to undermine future programs.

A 2022 state law set the budgets for New Hampshire’s energy efficiency programs in statute. In the Thursday order, two commissioners argue that law limited the authority of the Commission to only approving the changes from one plan to the next, not the plan as a whole.

The commissioners approved two changes: transitioning a pilot program to reduce demand on the grid into a full program, and creating a new name and structure for energy efficiency programs that serve municipal gas customers.

They said those represented about 3% of the total spending in the plan, and declined to rule on the other 97% of the spending, which was unchanged from the previous plan and they said was not subject to their review.

The plan as a whole is expected to take effect with the approved changes based on the 2022 law.

The commissioners said they did an independent review of the plan as a whole, and said they questioned whether it was “optimized to deliver ratepayer savings.”

“If making such findings were necessary to approve the 2024-2026 Plan, and given the limited evidentiary record, we may not have been able to support the approval of the Plan as filed,” they wrote.

The commissioners recommended topics for the utilities to prioritize in the next plan, including “weighing benefits and costs as symmetrically as possible.”

Commissioner Carleton Simpson wrote a dissenting opinion, saying he would approve the plan as a whole. Simpson said the majority decision creates uncertainty and “sends the wrong message to the parties and the public.”

He noted that all of the parties to the Public Utilities Commission proceeding, including the Office of the Consumer Advocate and the New Hampshire Department of Energy, recommended the plan’s approval, along with a variety of public stakeholders.

“While I support the Plan as filed, our work is not complete. In future triennial plans or program updates, I hope to see more analysis and development around the integration of renewable and distributed energy resources, energy storage, managed electric vehicle charging, and smart controls to optimize efficiencies and coordination between the electric and natural gas networks,” Simpson wrote.

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