The state Public Utilities Commission says it needs more time to decide on the future of New Hampshire’s energy efficiency programs, meaning no immediate changes to residents’ utility bills.
The PUC has spent the past several months weighing a plan from the state’s electric and gas utilities for how much less energy they aim to sell through efficiency programs from 2021 to 2023.
It's designed to save money and decrease carbon emissions, but 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.
Stakeholders – including the utilities, community action agencies and environmental groups – agreed to scale back the plan in a settlement earlier this month, after the more ambitious initial plan came under fire from PUC staff, conservative lawmakers and the state Business and Industry Association.
They’ve maintained, in recent hearings and comments, that the plan would raise costs too much for businesses, especially large manufacturers, during the pandemic-driven economic downturn.
Supporters and expert witnesses who testified at those hearings argue that a recession is the right time to expand money-saving efficiency programs, and that suspending or downsizing them would do more harm than good to businesses and the workforce.
The PUC was supposed to decide this issue by the end of 2020, but hearings didn’t conclude until last week. On Tuesday, the agency issued an order extending the current efficiency programs, with a decision expected in the next eight weeks.
“Given the complexity, importance, and inter-related nature of the many issues presented by the 2021-23 Plan and the Settlement Agreement, we do not believe sufficient time remains available to fully consider and resolve this matter prior to the requested rates effective date of January 1, 2021,” the order said.
Until then, the agency says, the utilities should maintain the current New Hampshire Saves efficiency programs and funding structure from the past three years.
It means people’s bills – and their access to rebates – won’t change for now. It also forestalls the economic damage the utilities said they feared if the efficiency programs were suspended altogether, as Republican lawmakers and the BIA had requested.
The state’s appointed utility consumer advocate, Don Kreis, called Tuesday’s order “extremely troubling."
"We proposed reasonable savings goals for the upcoming triennium and approving them should have been a no-brainer - certainly not something that requires pondering for eight long weeks," he told NHPR.
Kreis said he's “worried about whether the PUC is caving to political pressure," including from the Republican legislative majority and groups like the BIA.
State Rep. Michael Vose, an Epping Republican who chairs the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee and signed the caucus letter on the efficiency plan, said eight weeks may not be enough time to change the state's economic outlook -- "[b]ut it will give business and residential ratepayers a little break from rising utility costs."
Vose said he hopes any new evidence that the PUC accepts before it makes its ruling "would acknowledge and account for the potential harm that an increase in electricity and gas costs might do to an economy struggling to rebound from a pandemic."
This story was updated to include comments from Rep. Michael Vose.