Lebanon’s city council voted Wednesday evening to join a coalition of towns and cities that want to provide electricity to residents from renewable energy sources, at potentially lower costs than utilities can offer.
The Upper Valley city is now the second municipality to sign on to the Community Power Coalition of New Hampshire, a new, statewide public non-profit that will support communities in supplying electricity through bulk purchases -- known as municipal aggregation.
The idea, said Clifton Below, Lebanon’s assistant mayor, is that these programs “can harness the power of competitive markets, as well as create new options for local renewables, and help drive the change that we need to make the electric grid more efficient and more de-carbonized.”
Lebanon officials say joining the coalition will allow towns to share the non-profit’s staffing resources to manage these programs.
“And at the same time, be able to start to integrate more local renewables, do that at scale, and do this as efficiently as possible,” Below said.
The town of Hanover joined the coalition at the end of January, and other potential members include Nashua and Cheshire County.
Don Kreis, New Hampshire’s utility consumer advocate, says this could fundamentally change the way electricity is acquired in the state.
“I think it gives residential customers more opportunities to control their own electric destiny, both in terms of the way they personally use electricity in their homes and through their municipal governments,” he said.
A 2019 New Hampshire law enabled municipalities and counties to create opt-out community power programs, so residents would automatically be enrolled in a program, with time to choose to not participate.
Utilities like Eversource, Liberty and Unitil would still be the ones to distribute energy to retail customers. But communities could decide where that power should come from -- prioritizing wind, solar or local energy sources, for example, over fossil fuel sources.
“Just like everybody saves money on everything when they buy in bulk at wholesale, this could mean lower electric costs for residential customers who happen to live in municipalities that do this sort of thing,” Kreis said.
Proponents say this would enable communities like Hanover to meet their goal of getting 100% of their energy for electricity, heating and transportation from renewable sources by 2050, in an effort to combat climate change.
Below, Lebanon’s assistant mayor, said that Wednesday night’s vote did not mean the city was approving a community power plan, but that an electric aggregation plan is in the works.
The Community Power Coalition of New Hampshire is the first of its kind in the state. Other states, including California, New York, Ohio, New Jersey and Illinois, have similar programs.
Advocates in New Hampshire, though, are concerned that a bill now in the Legislature, HB 315 will gut the current set-up. It would make several changes to the law that enabled community power, which some say would make it nearly impossible to run these municipal programs.
One change would require municipalities to send notifications to every electric customer by mail prior to a community power program starting, but it would only allow that to be done with addresses in public records of the municipality or county. It would not require utilities to hand over customer addresses.
“Municipalities have no way of knowing who all the electric customers in their borders are. That doesn’t lead to a viable customer list,” Kreis said.
HB 315 would also require that the Public Utilities Commission approve any change to community power programs that municipalities might want to make.
Kreis says that would drain towns of time and resources.
But Rep. Michael Vose of Epping, the bill’s prime sponsor, argues that these and other proposed changes in the bill provide “the missing pieces" to let the state “move forward quickly on community aggregation.”
The proposed legislation will be heard before the House Science and Technology committee, which Vose chairs, on Friday, Feb. 12, at 3 p.m.