Some state weatherization contractors are warning that inaction by state regulators on New Hampshire’s energy efficiency plan could harm their business.
The state's utility providers -- Eversource, Liberty, Unitil and the New Hampshire Electric Co-op – and other stakeholders proposed an ambitious three year plan that would decrease the energy their customers have to buy.
It would do so by making homes and businesses more energy efficient, with the up-front cost funded by ratepayers.
The plan was delayed after a group of Republicans, business lobbyists and some at the Public Utilities Commission raised concerns. The commission was supposed to rule on the plan by Feb. 23, but has not yet reached a decision.
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 what's labeled 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.
Much of that work is carried out by small businesses, including Newell and Crathern, a weatherization company in Loudon. Bill Newell oversees a crew of 25 people, and says his company depends on these three-year plans running consistently.
“We’ve made a commitment with buildings, equipment, tools, employees, and now we don’t know what the future holds for us,” Newell said. “I have put off buying new equipment, trucks, things like that, until I get a decision of what this program is going to do.”
More than 11,700 of New Hampshire’s 17,000 clean energy jobs were in the design, installation, and manufacture of energy efficiency products and services, according to a 2019 report by Clean Energy NH. About 9% of those jobs were lost in the first few months of the pandemic.
Newell said the state's utilities told him last year that they expected their proposed three-year plan would move forward and create a substantial increase in business.
“Through no fault of the utilities -- at all -- that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. But we were all gearing up, getting ready for this,” he said.
Newell has seen an uptick in demand for weatherization, but it's hard to meet without approval of the three-year plan. So far, he has had to put 30 projects for Liberty customers on hold after that company suspended one of its rebate programs last week amid the ongoing PUC delay. Other utilities have said they may have to make similar changes soon.
Newell says he's hoping for a PUC decision soon. In the meantime, his company will finish projects with signed contracts. But he said this situation is highlighting a greater challenge - the state's limited energy efficiency workforce.
If projects don’t move forward, he said installers and contractors may have to let some employees go and could face difficulty replacing them.
“It takes probably two, two and a half years for a weatherization installer to know what he’s doing, and an auditor, three years to know what he’s doing,” Newell said. “That skill set, if this drops, is not something that would be easily replaceable.”
In Concord, Jessica Forrest, who leads the Weatherize Concord program, has been coordinating a recent push to weatherize 80 homes and businesses this year, instead of the usual 40.
“There aren't enough weatherization professionals in the New Hampshire world right now to address the need. So that was why we sort of set a modest goal of 80,” Forrest said.
Now the city has to contend with the additional challenge of utilities, like Liberty, suspending weatherization programs for customers because of the PUC delay. But Forrest says people can still sign up to participate.
“They will be addressed as soon as funding becomes available,” she said.
The delayed three-year utility plan also sought to address energy efficiency workforce shortages, including a proposal to search for and hire a workforce development coordinator who would implement trainings and recruit new workers.
“In order to scale up energy savings and program participation, the NH Utilities will increase workforce capacity through more contractor training, particularly regarding HVAC equipment and systems,” the utilities and other stakeholders wrote in their PUC proposal.
The utilities also proposed expanding trainings on building code compliance, emerging technologies and energy-efficient building techniques.
But until the PUC makes a decision, these efforts are also on hold.