Proposed electric bill credit spurs debate before Executive Council
This story was originally produced by the Keene Sentinel. NHPR is republishing it in partnership with the Granite State News Collaborative.
Gov. Chris Sununu got some pushback at Tuesday’s Executive Council meeting about his plan to give residential ratepayers across New Hampshire a $100 one-time credit on their electric bills.
Legislative approval would be needed to tap $60 million from surplus state money to pay for the credits to 600,000 power customers. State lawmakers, who are now on their summer break, will likely take up the issue in September, one month after New Hampshire's two biggest power companies are set to double electricity rates.
At the meeting in the Hooksett Public Library, Republican Councilor Theodore Gatsas questioned how helpful the $100 would be and whether it would go to the people who really need it. There was no agenda item in front of the council about this program, but councilors frequently weigh in with thoughts and suggestions about issues not directly before them.
Gatsas used himself as an example of someone who shouldn't get the credit.
He receives one electric bill for his house in Manchester, and another for his place in the state’s Seacoast Region, and, so, would receive $200 in credits.
“I don’t need the credit,” he said. “Is there any way we could do it through the towns and let them manage the money so that they can help people, the elderly, veterans, the people who really need the $100, rather than somebody who is in a vacation home at Rye Beach?”
He also pointed out that Massachusetts residents with second homes in New Hampshire would receive the credit.
Sununu, also a Republican, told Gatsas that speed is of the essence in delivering relief and there would be no way for municipalities to quickly set up a system to examine and means-test hundreds of thousands of applications for help with utility bills.
But Gatsas countered that sometimes the quality of a program is more important than speed.
“All I’m saying, governor, is they’re going to be sending you a check, they’re going to be sending me two … and I don’t think that’s right.”
At the suggestion of Republican Councilor Joseph Kenney, of Union, Jared Chicoine, the Energy Department commissioner, said he would check with utilities to see if a system could be set up that would enable people to refuse the credit so others in need could get more help.
Chicoine also said there are other programs that help people of low income pay fuel and electric expenses. They include the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and the Electric Assistance Program, which is supported by utilities.
He also said one advantage of the broad, $100-credit program is that it would include people who need the assistance but are reluctant to apply for it.
Consumer Advocate Donald Kreis said Wednesday many people may see an additional $50 on their electric bills under the new rates, so the credit could cover two months of the hike.
“I’m not going to criticize the governor for trying to do something in the short term because it is a short-term crisis,” Kreis said.
But he also said the credit is no panacea.
Rate increases last for six months, so the credit wouldn't begin to cover most of a consumer's increased costs.
Kreis said the state needs to take more long-term actions to reduce power rates, such as supporting energy efficiency, diversifying power sources and adopting rate structures that allow costs to decrease during non-peak-demand hours.
Hikes in natural-gas prices have contributed to increased utility costs in New Hampshire and elsewhere, he said.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2020, New Hampshire had the fifth-highest average electricity retail prices among the Lower 48 states.
Three-fifths of New Hampshire's net electrical generation comes from the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant. Two natural-gas-fired plants that came online in 2002 and 2003 are the state's next largest power plants by capacity, the EIA said.
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