Liberty Utilities has suspended a home weatherization program for its natural gas customers because of delays at the Public Utilities Commission in approving expanded energy efficiency goals for the state.
Other electric and gas utilities say they could soon face similar choices that will affect their customers if regulators continue to leave the issue undecided.
The PUC was supposed to have ruled by Feb. 23 on the utilities' plan for reducing the energy they sell by making homes and businesses more energy efficient from 2021 to 2023.
These efficiency programs are designed to help people lower their energy bills and decrease carbon emissions. Ratepayers have to cover the up-front cost -- less than a dollar per month for average residents, through the System Benefits Charge on utility bills.
Those extra charges are then invested through NHSaves, which provides rebates, audits and incentives through a number of different programs for residents and businesses.
The utilities' 2021 to 2023 proposal was more ambitious than their previous one, seeking more energy savings and efficiency measures at a greater customer cost. The plan was delayed after a group of Republican state lawmakers, PUC staff and the Business and Industry Association raised concerns about its economic impacts amid the pandemic.
The PUC said it needed more time to rule on the issue and told utilities to continue operating the programs of NHSaves based on their 2020 funding levels.
But Eric Stanley, Liberty’s energy efficiency manager in New Hampshire, says the PUC’s delay is beginning to have an impact.
“There are some programs we’re having to slow down customer activity, or essentially put customers on hold until we get further clarity from the commission on our proposed plan,” Stanley said.
He said demand for these programs is at an all-time high for Liberty, and it’s beginning to outstrip those carried-over 2020 funding levels -- in particular, for the Home Performance with Energy Star Program, which helps gas customers with weatherization.
“We have our highest level for that program at this point in the calendar year than we’ve seen historically,” he said. “We have over 160 projects in queue that are waiting to be served.”
Liberty will be able to get to those projects, but until there's clarity from the PUC, they'll hold off approving another 150 customers whose applications are pending.
Stanley says similar suspensions could be coming for their electric program, which is also seeing high demand.
“Likely if nothing changes here in the next week or so, we will be in the same circumstance,” he said.
That’s disappointing to Barbara Callaway, who chairs the Weatherize Hanover campaign. Liberty provides electricity for customers in Hanover.
Because the pandemic put a lot of weatherization and energy efficiency upgrades on hold in 2020, she says she was excited to get the ball rolling in 2021.
Over the past year, Callaway saw good turnout at several educational meetings Weatherize Hanover hosted about energy efficiency and how to apply through NHSaves for those rebates. But now she’s not sure what to say to people who are interested in Liberty’s rebate program.
“It’s hard to publicize and encourage people to take advantage of a program that’s so iffy,” Callaway said.
Hanover has a goal of using 100 percent renewable energy for its electricity by 2030, and heating and transportation by 2050. Callway says weatherization programs and energy efficiency go a long way towards lowering residential and business energy use, helping the town achieve these goals.
“Everybody can contribute to cutting greenhouse gases,” she said.
So far, Liberty is the only utility that's suspended efficiency or weatherization programs as a result of the uncertainty at the PUC.
But in a letter to the commission on April 1, Eversource and the other utilities expressed concerns about how their programs will be affected without a new three-year plan.
“2020 funding levels will not be sufficient to achieve even the 2020 level of energy savings or associated benefits. Additionally, new program offerings proposed in the 2021-2023 Plan have time sensitive deadlines if they are to move forward this year,” the letter said.
Don Kreis, the state’s utility consumer advocate, says getting a decision on the proposed plan will provide clarity and allow energy efficiency programs, like Liberty’s, to move forward. He called the ongoing delay "a crisis."
"This is the most troubling regulatory situation I have seen in 22 years of being involved in utility regulation in New Hampshire,” he said.
Because the first quarter of 2021 is already over and the three-year plan was supposed to take effect Jan. 1, 2021, Kreis said adjustments will need to be made regardless.
“It could change targets, although we would have to take a hard look at whether there’s some way of adjusting what we’re trying to achieve in the second and third years in order to make up for lost time in the first year,” he said. “There’s some ability to do that, but it isn’t easy.”
Kreis supported the original targets set by the utilities’ 2021 to 2023 proposal. Those were lowered late last year in a stakeholder settlement that sought to resolve the debate over the issue.
Asked for comment on the timing of a decision, PUC spokeswoman Amanda Noonan said in an email: "The 2021-2023 triennial energy efficiency plan docket, DE 20-092, is pending before the Commission."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Liberty provides natural gas in Hanover. In fact, they provide electricity.