N.H. House Bill That Would Change Current Community Power Structure Gets Its First Hearing | New Hampshire Public Radio

N.H. House Bill That Would Change Current Community Power Structure Gets Its First Hearing

Feb 15, 2021

Credit Community Power New Hampshire

State lawmakers heard testimony Friday on a controversial bill that would change how community power programs could operate in the state.  

A 2019 law enables municipalities and counties to purchase power on behalf of residents and businesses within their jurisdiction through opt-out programs.

Advocates say these programs are one way to get more energy from renewable resources, and at possibly lower costs to ratepayers. 

Utilities would still distribute that energy.

A bill now in the House - HB 315 - would make changes to the current structure. Opponents say it adds burdensome regulations that would make it impossible for the program to work as intended. 

Michael Vose, a Repbulican representative from Epping who chairs the House energy committee, is sponsoring HB 315.

He argued that some changes municipalities would want to implement in their programs, like smart-metering, are not necessary for communities to purchase power in bulk for their residents.  

“We’re introducing HB 315 to simplify” the 2019 law, Vose said.

Clifton Below is assistant mayor in Lebanon, which plans on implementing its own community power program. He testified Friday that community power programs would offer more options to smaller customers on the market. 

“It allows for innovation and adaptation to local conditions. A lot of what this bill would do is get rid of those things,” he said. “It would get rid of a lot of the opportunities to provide value-added benefits to both local customers and the grid as a whole."

Don Kreis, the state’s utility consumer advocate, also testified in opposition to the bill.

“The question I think the legislature needs to ask itself is, do you want to protect default service or do you want to protect consumers?” he said.

Default service is a utility’s standard offer of energy service, and Kreis said that community power presents itself as a “legitimate rival” to that.

“It really does have the potential to have lots of residential customers to migrate away from the utility and into combining their demand with their neighbors,” he said. “I think that’s a sign of success” of the 1996 New Hampshire law that restructured the state’s electric industry, splitting up its functions to introduce more competition and forcing utilities to sell off their power plants.

Proponents of HB315, including the utility company Eversource, say it would still allow a basic form of community power to exist, while side-stepping disagreements utilities and communities have been trying to sort out through an informal rule-making process at the Public Utilities Commission over the past year.  

The formal rulemaking process on community power aggregation has not started.

“We recognize that having customers served that way will have an impact on default service, and that’s an impact that can be dealt with if it’s done in a relatively orderly fashion,” said Matthew Fossum, senior regulatory counsel for Eversource, during the committee hearing.  

One of the sticking points from that informal rule-making process came down to when communities could put in a bid to purchase power. Utilities wanted that to happen as close as possible to the two times a year they go to bid, but communities say that would limit their options to find the best prices on the market.

“That could lead to increased costs for any customers remaining on default service,” Fossum said.

In a letter Friday, Gov. Chris Sununu said he urged the committee to “use House Bill 315 as amended to clarify uncertainties, remove barriers to compromise and bring to our communities swift access to these policy changes.” 

Sununu signed the original community power bill, which had bipartisan sponsorship, in 2019. But he’s been critical in the past of other policies, such as net energy metering, that can cede some control over the energy system from utilities to customers. 

The House committee will continue the hearing on HB 315 at a later date, since only a handful of the 26 people who signed up to testify had a chance to on Friday.

Four hundred and eleven members of the public registered their opposition to the bill without testifying on Friday, while nine said they supported it.