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NH Legislature Passes $42 Million Energy Relief Plan in Bipartisan Vote

Granite Staters will get help this winter paying for heat and electricity after the legislature passed a $42 million plan to fund energy assistance for the middle class. 

“New Hampshire just delivered the largest energy relief package this state has ever seen, helping families in need this winter – using our state surplus funds,” said Gov. Chris Sununu as he signed a bill passed during the “Veto Day” session Thursday.

Democrats, on the other hand, used the news to repeat the debunked claim that Sununu is responsible for setting the state’s utility rates.

“The legislation the House just passed is critical to helping Granite Staters affected by Governor Sununu’s record electric rate hikes this fall,” said House Democratic Leader David E. Cote (D-Nashua).

Utility rates are set by the independent Public Utilities Commission.

Partisan rancor ahead of the midterm elections was not enough to prevent the legislature from enacting utility relief at a time when energy costs are soaring in New Hampshire and nationwide. The 12-month inflation rate is currently 15.8 percent for electricity and 33 percent for natural gas.

The new law uses surplus New Hampshire state budget funds to expand energy assistance this year, allowing middle-income New Hampshire residents to qualify for aid. Previously, the aid was only available to households earning up to 60 percent of the state median income. Lawmakers expanded eligibility to families earning up to 75 percent of the median, who can now apply for up to $450 in heating assistance and another $200 in electricity assistance.

Sununu originally wanted to use $60 million in surplus funding to send every home $100 in energy assistance, but that plan was rejected by lawmakers who came up with a more targeted proposal.

“That seems like a meaningless political gesture to me,” Rep. Steve Smith (R-Charlestown), said of Sununu’s initial plan.

Instead, lawmakers passed their proposal that will use $25 million on emergency fuel and electric assistance, $10 million on aid for electricity bills, and $7 million on an electric assistance program. The state’s surplus will be at around $120 million after the assistance is paid out.

Rep. Marjorie Smith (D-Durham) said the bill is not a long-term solution to high energy prices in New Hampshire, but it will help.

“Maybe it’s just a band-aid, but if you scrape your knee a band-aid helps,” she said.

House Speaker Sherman Packard (R-Londonderry) said not only will the bill help people pay for heating this winter, but it does so in a responsible manner.

“The fiscally responsible leadership of the General Court of New Hampshire has produced a budget surplus which allows us to create this one-time emergency relief package that will help offset rising fuel and electric costs this winter,” Packard said. “This bill provides direct relief to those in need and reduces the anticipated burden placed upon municipal welfare programs – a cost that would otherwise be passed along to property owners at the local level. We believe these surplus funds will alleviate some of the financial pressure for NH families who would otherwise not qualify for existing assistance programs. By coming together today, we chose New Hampshire citizens over party politics.

House Majority Leader Rep. Jason Osborne (R-Auburn) blamed President Joe Biden and members of New Hampshire’s federal delegation for making inflation worse.

“Due to no fault of their own, many Granite Staters who have not previously needed assistance may find themselves unable to pay their bills this winter and do not qualify for the federal assistance programs. We want to ensure those people have some help,” Osborne said.

New Hampshire Democrats, however, point the finger of blame for rising utility costs at Sununu.

“New Hampshire has become an outlier in New England with record rate increases because Gov. Sununu has consistently rejected efforts to increase energy efficiency and production of renewable energy,” Cote said. “Granite State families cannot afford the 50 percent increase that will hit them this fall, and this bill provides temporary relief for lower-income households that are ineligible for existing programs.”

In fact, New Hampshire currently has the second-lowest electricity rates in New England and historically had lower rates than Massachusetts.

The legislature also failed to override any of Sununu’s eight vetoes.

New Net Metering Bill Could Mean Headaches for NH Electric Grid

Subsidizing green energy is easy. Subsidizing it using the electric grid is hard.

That was the message from Eversource and some state officials regarding SB 321, which came before the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee on Tuesday. The bill would allow local electricity producers generating between 1 and 5 megawatts– mostly solar power plants — to use the existing power grid to sell and distribute power within the state directly to users and not via the existing utilities.

Under the pilot program, small generators could enter direct intrastate contracts with users and, because it is premised on the claim those transactions avoid any use of transmission infrastructure, it would create savings that would be returned to the generator. Those savings would help make the renewable power price competitive.

“The proposal allows pilot projects to test the feasibility of electricity sales between two parties that do not involve the current market managed by the independent system operator (ISO-NE),” committee chairman Rep. Michael Vose (R-Epping) told NHJournal. “Such sales would use utility-owned distribution facilities and would pay distribution costs. The final legislation will limit such sales for 15 years until their value has been determined.”

The problem, critics say, is that the theory just isn’t true.

According to energy experts who spoke to NHJournal, the proposal runs afoul of existing agreements between the utilities and the ISO. And most energy transactions will still use the transmission infrastructure, cutting into projected savings.

“Eversource covers large portions of New Hampshire, and some of their areas are only interconnected via transmission lines, like Nashua and Coos County,” said state Rep. Michael Harrington (R-Stafford), a former member of the Public Utility Commission who now serves on the energy committee. “This means even if the transaction was limited to players in a single utilities area, it could still involve transmitting the power over transmission lines where FERC has jurisdiction.

“It is a very complicated issue and is only made more complicated by jurisdictional issues,” Harrington added.

And the premise of a pilot program that lasts 15 years flies in the face of the meaning of the word. “Fifteen years isn’t a ‘pilot,'” one energy utility source said. “That’s a full season.”

Advocates like Lebanon Assistant Mayor Clifton Below say the proposal brings market-priced solutions to the renewable energy sector.

The City of Lebanon could potentially become an energy producer. The Lebanon Solid Waste Facility is in the process of building a power plant to burn greenhouse gasses created by decomposing trash in order to power microturbines. The current plan is to use that power for city properties.

“It’s a baby step. It’s something that could prove to be more economically and technologically efficient,” Below said during Tuesday’s hearing.

The problem, said Eversource Director of Governmental Affairs Donna Gamache, is the proposal both violates agreements regulating the utility’s transmission lines and would force one group of customers to subsidize another.

“We want to make sure everyone using the transition system pays their fair share, and that Eversource can maintain reliability,” Gamache said. “We fear this would violate ISO New England agreements.”

In her testimony to the committee, Gamache said, “These types of transactions are not permissible under the ISO-NE Open Access Transmission Tariff or the Transmission Owners Operators Agreement Changing this would require ISO-NE to file for and FERC to approve a new tariff provision that would allow intrastate sales as the transmission system would need to be used to move the power.”

Director of Legislative & Regulatory Affairs for Clean Energy NH, Kelly Buchanan, said the state’s PUC can regulate the pilot program. Bringing in a new way to sell renewable energy would help the industry grow while it shifts to cleaner power.

“This bill expands the marketplace for renewable energy in the 1-to-5-megawatt range,” she said.

Griffin Roberge with the New Hampshire Department of Energy said the state is not taking a position on the bill, citing many of Gamache’s concerns about potentially running afoul of the ISO New England agreements. The matter was subject to a state study, which cautioned about proceeding with selling power.

“The report found this was a complex issue, and warned of unintended consequences,” Roberge said.

Harrington agreed. “My recommendation would be to give the issue more study.”

A “Bridge” Too Far For Anti-Pipeline Movement In New Hampshire?

In the politically divided purple state of New Hampshire, getting 22 of the legislature’s 24 state senators to agree on anything is nearly impossible. Maple syrup, the Red Sox, sure. Maybe motherhood and apple pie (depending on where the apples are from)…but a utility company’s natural gas pipeline?

No way.

Except that’s exactly what happened. In May, all but two members of the New Hampshire state Senate—including all 10 Democrats–endorsed Liberty Utilities’ “Granite Bridge” pipeline project. Support from Republicans like Senate President Chuck Morse and Majority Leader Jeb Bradley for this 27-mile natural gas pipeline from Stratham to Manchester is hardly a surprise. But when a liberal environmental activist like Sen. Martha Fuller Clark is on board, that’s definitely news.

“Granite Bridge will make it possible to store and deliver natural gas to a greater number of New Hampshire customers, especially during a cold snap like we experienced this past winter, at a lower cost and with fewer greenhouse gas emissions than home heating oil, the current alternative,” Sen. Clark said in a press release endorsing Granite Bridge. 

Though it’s years away from final approval, the broad, bipartisan support for Granite Bridge stands in stark contrast to the reaction to most of the energy infrastructure projects in the past few months. Even renewable energy projects like Northern Pass (hydro-electric), NextEra (solar) and Spruce Ridge (wind) have been shot down in recent weeks—a fact that makes Liberty’s steady progress on Granite Bridge even more surprising.

It is also a cautionary tale for Green-action groups, showing how they can find themselves fighting alone out on the political fringe. There are still many Public Utility Commission filings, hearing and debates yet to come, but it’s not too early to ask: How did Liberty Utility and Granite Bridge come so far with so little opposition?

IT’S THE WEATHER, STUPID.

 The first thing to remember about New Hampshire and energy policy is this: It’s cold.  Really cold. Too cold, in the opinion of many homeowners, to rely on electricity for heat. In places like Florida, electric heat is fine. But at the border of Canada, many believe…not so much.

The most common home heating fuel is heating oil, used in more than 44 percent of New Hampshire homes. Propane, another carbon-based energy source, heated another 15 percent.

Heating oil is both relatively expensive and emits a relatively high CO2 output. Not only is it used to heat homes, but it also plays a significant role in providing electricity when demand is unusually high.

“During the two weeks of Arctic cold [in 2017], New England generators burned through about 2 million barrels of oil. That’s about 84 million gallons. That’s more than twice as much as all the oil used by New England power plants during the entire year of 2016,” according to ISO New England CEO Gordon van Welie. Even worse, during that cold snap, energy from coal or oil shot up from about 2 percent of New England’s grid total to 33 percent.

All this is bad news for climate activists and energy customers. How can New Hampshire, which has committed to reducing its carbon footprint even as the state’s economy continues to grow, turn this around and still meet its energy needs? One potential solution is natural gas.

While it’s not carbon neutral, burning natural gas for fuel generates less CO2 than any of the carbon-based fuel sources like coal, heating oil or propane. It’s also significantly cheaper to heat your home with natural gas than heating oil.

Which explains why even progressives like President Obama’s Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz say “Natural gas has shown itself to be an important bridge to a clean energy future.” New Hampshire state senator Clark echoed that sentiment in her statement supporting Granite Bridge:

“Increasing access to natural gas will reduce air emissions and help to fight climate change, as well as lowering our high energy costs in the short term while we work to create an energy future that will rely solely on true renewables, including solar and wind.”

The opportunity to get more New Hampshire households off heating oil and onto natural gas would seem like a win for the green movement. And yet, as Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute notes, “the trouble is there isn’t enough pipeline capacity to bring in natural gas from the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania to New England in times of high demand. Even as America’s natural gas production has soared, the pipeline capacity to get it to where it’s needed hasn’t kept up.”

Holman Jenkins of The Wall Street Journal makes the same point: “New England is in the worst shape [in the nation], having killed multiple projects for new pipelines and even a transmission line to bring hydropower from Canada. Local electric prices are 50% higher than the national average. Every winter, thanks to an overtaxed pipeline network, the six-state region descends into a ‘precarious position,’ according to New England’s grid manager.”

And a 2018 report from ISO-New England is filled with references to “fuel shortages” and “fuel availability” (not to mention the possibility of brown outs and load shedding in harsh winter weather 10 years from now), all of which translates to “customers who need natural gas, but there’s not enough pipeline capacity to get it to them.”

How did New England become America’s energy-grid basket case? “Political obstacles driven by environmental groups,” says Perry.

“THE ENEMY OF THE GOOD”

“There are just so many reasons why a pipeline is just not the right choice.” So says Stephanie Scherr, founder and director of EchoAction.org, a self-described “environmental justice” organization in New Hampshire.  At a public hearing in Epping earlier in the year,  Scherr said “when we choose gas we are complicit in what happens to other people.”

In a statement to NHJournal, The Conservation Law Foundation calls Granite Bridge “a bad deal for New Hampshire residents.”

When asked about the argument made by people like Secretary Moniz and Sen. Clark that natural gas should be a bridge to renewables, Scherr bristles. “I have nothing to say about Senator Clark’s decision. I think it was a most unfortunate decision and we were very disappointed,” Scherr said.

Patricia Martin, EchoAction’s Energy Policy Coordinator, is even more direct. “I am actually quite upset that Liberty lobbyists manipulated these senators into ENDORSING [emphasis in original] the project before they’ve heard any good arguments against it or probing questions about it,” she told NHJournal via email. “Now their egos and reputations will be tied to being named in that press release as endorsing the project.”

EchoAction is part of a broader environmental movement across New England, including the Conservation LAW Foundation, Citizens Climate Lobby and others who oppose virtually all pipelines—period. “They’ve decided to make the perfect the enemy of the good, which is a shame because Granite Bridge can do a lot of good,” a source close to the project told NHJournal.

The strategy is simple: Oppose any expansion of the carbon-energy infrastructure and force New Hampshire to expand renewable energy to meet future needs.

‘I oppose any expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure,” Martin says. “If we want to transition away from fossil fuels, we need to stop expanding its usage as a first step. If you know there’s a stop sign coming up, do you step on the gas and then brake hard at the last moment?”

Echo Action plans to protest outside the New Hampshire Democratic state convention on Saturday, June 23 in response to the Democrats’ lack of fealty to their zero-carbon-infrastructure stance.

The problem is that renewables are nowhere close to covering the region’s energy needs. In a statement, the CLF says of Granite Bridge:

“Rather than lining the pockets of another utility, New Hampshire should support the many small businesses providing low-cost clean technologies like heat pumps for heating and cooling.”

But even if New Hampshire were somehow converted to an “electric heat” state like South Carolina or Virginia (remember the “it gets really cold here” part?), in 2016 the state got a mere 2.3 percent of its electricity from wind—one-tenth the amount of electricity generated from natural gas. While renewables are close to providing 20 percent of total energy consumed in New Hampshire (a figure that excludes nuclear—which makes no sense, but that’s a topic for another day), by far the largest source isn’t wind, solar or geothermal. It’s biomass. Biomass generates three times more electricity than the other three sources combined.

Not to mention the fact that these “many small businesses” all get subsidies for their biomass/electric/wind from current ratepayers, pushing the cost of electricity in one of the most expensive states in the country even higher.

The reality is that New Hampshire businesses and homeowners aren’t going to sit in dark, unelectrified buildings and wait for wind and solar technology to catch up with current demand. The lights are going to come on, the stoves are going to be lit.  Opposing smart pipeline projects won’t stop that from happening. It just means the natural gas will get to New England in dumb ways.

Like tanker ships from Russia.

Earlier this year, the left-leaning Boston Globe  ran an editorial decrying “pipeline absolutism” and urging the region’s environmentalists to end their knee-jerk opposition to all projects.

Their coverage included the story of a Russian tanker bringing liquified natural gas 4,500 miles from the Arctic to Boston because of a lack of pipelines in New England.

“Climate advocates have put short-term tactical victories against fossil fuel infrastructure ahead of strategic progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They’ve obsessed over stopping domestic pipelines, no matter where those pipes go, what they carry, what fuels they displace, and how the ripple effects of those decisions may raise overall global greenhouse gas emissions,” the Globe argued. [emphasis added]

Why would environmentalists support shipping LNG (via diesel-powered tanker) through the pristine Arctic region when there’s plenty of home-grown natural gas in North America? According to the Globe, a lawyer for the anti-pipeline Conservation Law Foundation “shrugged off” the issue of Russian gas being transported to New England.

“On the plus side, though, they didn’t offend Pittsfield or Winthrop, Danvers or Groton, with even an inch of pipeline,” the Globe noted wryly.

A good way to avoid New England NIMBYism. But how is that a smart strategy for the environment?

THE GRANITE BRIDGE PROJECT

Enter Liberty Utilities and Granite Bridge. On paper, it appears to be a no-brainer. Taking advantage of the state’s “Energy Infrastructure Corridor” program, the pipeline’s 27 miles are mostly located in the Route 101 right-of-way and buried underground, thus avoiding many of the NIMBY issues that have plagued other projects.

And the pipeline will serve a densely populated area from Stratham to Manchester, where natural gas demand is going to climb with or without a new pipeline. Liberty currently serves 90,000 customers from Laconia to Nashua with a single pipeline that is nearing capacity. And that’s a problem.

“Look at what’s happened in California when you refuse to invest in infrastructure,” former New Hampshire Speaker of the House Bill O’Brien told NHJournal. “Energy, water, whatever. You can refuse to build it, but demand is going to rise. In California, they’ve got water shortages, brownouts—it’s a disaster. New Hampshire environmentalists should learn that lesson and support the right projects, not just oppose everything,” the Republican said.

And Granite Bridge also fits in with the new 10-year Energy Strategy released by Gov. Chris Sununu, which prioritizes lower rates for businesses and consumers. The project also includes a large LNG tank in an abandoned quarry near Epping. According to John Shore, senior manager of marketing and communications for Liberty Utilities, this approach will let Liberty to buy natural gas during the summer when prices tend to be low, store it, then use that cheap, stored gas to save customers money in the winter when prices inevitably spike.

“We know the price patterns in the industry and, with this storage capacity, we can use that knowledge to save our customers money,” Shore told NHJournal. If the Granite Bridge pipeline had been in place starting in 2013, this “buy gas when it’s cheap” strategy would have saved Liberty Utilities customers more than $100 million by now, according to Shore. It also provides a cushion against price instability in the natural gas market for Liberty’s customers.

Plus, Liberty is putting the LNG tank in an old quarry, where it’s both safer and out of sight.

Lower CO2 emissions, lower prices, more price stability and all hidden underground on a highway right of way.  And green activists at CLF and Echo Action are against it? To the average New Hampshire consumer, ratepayer and voter—this opposition makes little sense.

By opposing projects that have a demonstrable environmental benefit in the name of still-unavailable levels or wind and solar, the anti-pipeline forces have pushed themselves to the political fringe.

And once they’ve marginalized themselves as the “We’d rather see tankers from Russia than a pipeline from Pennsylvania” movement, how much clout with they have in Concord? Won’t it be easier for utility companies to convince lawmakers to shrug off their objections, the way the New England CLF attorney “shrugged off” the impact of their anti-pipeline stance on the pristine Arctic environment?

Granite Bridge could be a turning point for the region’s environmental stakeholders, a path for the energy and environmental movements to find common ground going forward—avoiding clearly-unpopular projects like Kinder Morgan while supporting “win/win” infrastructure proposals.

Or it could be a breaking point, driving moderate voices away from the Granite State’s environmental movement.

Two Energy Issues Facing the NH Legislature Under Gov. Sununu’s Term

It’s New Hampshire Energy Week in the Granite State. Throughout the week, lawmakers and energy policy advocates discussed some of the challenges facing the state, solutions to solve these problems, and important pieces of legislation coming up in the next two years.

Under the Republican-controlled Legislature, it’s not exactly clear what energy policy issues the GOP leadership and Gov. Chris Sununu are going to prioritize, but there are some interesting bills that could come up for a vote during Sununu’s term.

Here are two controversial energy bills in front of the Legislature this session:

 

REPEALING RGGI

Rep. Michael Harrington, R-Strafford, is sponsoring House Bill 592, which would end New Hampshire’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). RGGI is a cap-and-trade program where utilities pay for carbon dioxide emission allowances. This serves to control and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The funds from these allowances are used for energy efficiency projects and ratepayer rebates.  Currently, eight other states in the Northeast participate in the program. New Jersey was also a member of RGGI, but pulled out of the program in 2011.

This bill has been opposed by pro-energy and environment groups like the NH Sierra Club and the New Hampshire Sustainable Energy Association (NHSEA).

“Repealing RGGI would be a mistake for New Hampshire in terms of our economy, our environment and our public health,” said Michelle McCarthy, campaign organizer of Environment New Hampshire, at a hearing on the bill in February in front of the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee.

Opponents of the bills point to an Abt Associates report that was released in January, which estimates that the state avoided $100 million in higher health care costs by reducing pollution. They claim that since RGGI’s inception in 2008, electricity prices have decreased in the participating states by 3.4 percent, while costs nationally have increased by 7.2 percent.

Supporters of pulling out of RGGI say New Hampshire still has some of the highest energy costs, especially for commercial and industrial companies. With high energy costs, businesses are looking to move or expand in other states.

“This is not rocket science, and companies like Sig Sauer are doing the math and realizing it’s cheaper to move jobs out of New Hampshire to cheaper-power states,” said Greg Moore, state director of American’s for Prosperity, at the hearing.

In December, Sig Sauer announced it was expanding its operations in Arkansas, and New Hampshire’s high electric rates was a motivating factor. The company is still retaining its offices in the Granite State, though, and it was announced this year that the company was awarded with a whopping $580 million, 10-year contract with the U.S. Army to manufacture its pistols.

A University of New Hampshire research study released Tuesday determined that New England does not need to increase energy use to continue to grow its economy.

“It is important to prevent further increases in the cost of energy and ideally to reduce the overall cost of electricity in New Hampshire, especially for customer groups adversely affected by the state’s relatively high electricity prices, including more intensive commercial and industrial users as well as low-income households that pay a greater portion of their income for energy,” the researchers noted.

Kate Epsen, a member of the NHSEA, said it’s time to quash the belief that just because of New Hampshire’s energy prices, businesses are leaving or not coming to the state.

“We hear a lot of clamor over these high rates, but the bottom line of the bills people receive is that they are the same or lower than the national averages,” she told NH Journal. “We need to weigh the risks versus rewards of a single, very large type of project or more energy efficient technologies that are more broad based and keep jobs and dollars in the state economy.”

Epsen alluded to the ever controversial Northern Pass project — the 192-mile proposed hydroelectric line from Canada to Deerfield. Proponents of the project says the power would reduce energy costs for residents and businesses, but opponents cite possible environmental issues from putting the lines underground to high towers ruining New Hampshire vistas and impacting tourism. The state’s Site Evaluation Committee (SEC) is expected to decide in the fall if the project will move forward or not.

However, Moore and supporters of RGGI agreed that perhaps the program shouldn’t be repealed, but could be made better to fit New Hampshire’s needs.

He said all the money collected should be rebated to customers, which could save homeowners $1.3 million a year and commercial and industrial customers could save $2 million.

Catherine Corkery, chapter director of the NH Sierra Club, said the program should be made better, not eliminated.

“The politically motivated repeal bills are putting the program at risk every year, making it unstable and difficult for users to rely on,” she said. “Repeated repeal threats exhaust resources and delay helping people.”

The bill has been retained in committee, meaning after working on the bill during the summer months, it could come up again for a vote in the next legislative session. A complicating factor to the debate is the federal Clean Power Plan (CPP), former President Barack Obama’s initiative to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. RGGI currently satisfies the federal requirements for the plan, yet President Donald Trump has pledged that he would dismantle CPP and could do so as early as next week.

Sununu indicated on the campaign trail that he would consider withdrawing from RGGI, but only if other states also left.

 

REPEALING ELECTRIC RENEWABLE PORTFOLIO STANDARD

House Bill 225 would repeal the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS), which would require 17 percent renewables to be used by the state’s utilities this year. Those renewable energy sources include wind turbines, hydroelectric dams, solar panels, and even biomass plants.

If a utility does not meet its quota for renewable energy, it must make payments to the renewable energy fund, which is then spent on grants and rebates for individuals and businesses working on renewable energy projects.

New Hampshire’s RPS sets annual targets for electricity providers, and they meet targets by earning renewable energy certificates (RECs) for selling renewable power to retail customers. They can also buy RECs from other providers to comply.

Supporters of a repeal say renewable energy is more expensive than other energy sources, so the RPS forces consumers to pay for more expensive electricity. When utilities do not buy enough renewable energy, they essentially pay to subsidize more renewable energy projects. Due to these subsidies, there is little incentive for renewable energy sources to lower their prices. The legislature has also used money from the renewable energy fund to pay for unrelated budget items in the past.

Supporters of the RPS argue the law is necessary to ensure the development of renewable energy. A shortage of natural gas in New England caused electricity rates to spike over the winter months, highlighting the need for more diverse and renewable energy sources. Grants from the renewable energy fund also contribute significantly to the North Country economy, for the biomass and forestry industries.

Rep. Bart Fromuth, R-Bedford, sponsored a similar bill in 2015, but the House tabled it. However, the bill with an amendment was passed by the House in a Thursday executive session.

The Citizens Count, NH’s Live Free or Die Alliance — a nonpartisan organization looking to give citizen’s a voice in their local government — conducted a Facebook survey of New Hampshire residents on their support for the bill in January.

Approximately 55 percent said they were opposed to repealing the RPS, compared to 45 percent who were in favor of repealing, the survey found.

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley has been a leading voice of energy policy in New Hampshire. He said he understand the concern of high energy prices, but doesn’t believe the bills repealing RGGI and RPS will ultimately pass.

“When all is said and done, the current laws will largely stay in place,” he told the Associated Press. “What we need to do in New England is to site new sources of generation in a way that protects people’s property values and their rights. That is a tough needle to thread.”

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Why Net Metering Could Be A Divisive Issue This Year For Lawmakers

It’s an issue that’s been put on hold since last May, but soon enough, New Hampshire lawmakers are going to have to tackle net metering again. And last time, it took some serious convincing to get everyone on board.

Net metering is a policy that allows residents and businesses who use certain renewable energies, like solar, to sell excess electricity back to the grid at the same price they are spending when they buy energy from the grid. That means, when you get more electricity than you need or use in the summer months, for example, your local electric distributor keeps track of the surplus and gives you credit at their retail rate (for residents) for when you’re not getting enough during the dark, winter months. Larger consumers receive the wholesale rate, which is less than the retail rate.

But all of the state’s utilities are either approaching or have reached the statutory limits allowed for renewable energy, which is 100 megawatts — or 100 million watts. It’s apportioned to the utilities based on the number of customers each serves. That seems like a big number, but most people’s solar array for their homes run about 5 kilowatts (5000 watts).

Lawmakers created that arbitrary cap years ago when it was almost inconceivable that a limit would be reached. But over the years, solar energy increased in popularity and now many states are trying to figure out what to do.

The issue is that a lot of people don’t think this arrangement is fair. Electric utilities argue that solar customers still use the grid, but are zeroing out their bills with a “subsidy.” They say the costs are being pushed to electric customers who don’t have solar.

Solar advocates argue that there are benefits, such as reduced carbon emissions. Also, by having less demand on power lines during summer months, utilities can pass on those savings to other consumers.

Just last year, former Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan signed a bill lifting the cap on net metering after most state utilities reached the limit. Originally, the net metering cap was 50 megawatts, but the House bill was raised to 100 megawatts. An earlier Senate version of the bill only increased the cap to 75 megawatts, but energy advocates said that wouldn’t be enough to fend off job losses in the solar industry, which ended up happening anyway. It took some Republicans a while to hop on board with raising the cap, which is why any bill on net metering could see some hurdles in the Legislature.

The bill also required the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to review current net metering rates and set new ones. The results of their findings are expected to be released in May.

A new bill in the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee says it would eliminate the cap on net metering. However, the sponsor of House Bill 518, Rep. Richard Barry, R-Merrimack, said he plans on retaining the bill in committee until PUC releases its suggestions and then another public hearing would be held.

That didn’t stop solar advocates coming out in droves on Wednesday to list their concerns with the bill. Many attendees said they were excited about the possibility of eliminating the cap all together. But some of the language in the legislation led them to call it “a half truth and a booby trap for the growth of renewable energy.”

Specifically, they didn’t like how they eliminated the cap but were changing the net metering tariff to the average monthly wholesale energy rate, and not keeping it at the retail rate.

Holly Grossman, a resident of Barrington, said she has a solar array on her roof that takes care of all her energy needs.

“I would hate to see solar energy go down in the state,” she testified to the committee. “It’s very important for our economy. If we didn’t have it, what would we replace it with? Fossil fuels?”

It’s important to note that the legislation does not call for getting rid of net metering all together. That’s something solar advocates say would give too much control to monopoly utilities and could lead to new taxes on solar users and higher electricity rates for all customers. The bill calls for eliminating the cap, but it also includes the change in energy rate to the wholesale amount.

But that’s a change some businesses believe would be fairer.

Stefanie Lamb, vice president of public policy for the Business and Industry Association, said her group supports the bill and setting the tariff at the wholesale rate.

“People say we’re not supportive of the renewable energy industry by not opposing the bill,” she said. “We are supportive of it to help with the energy challenges in our state. But if our businesses are large energy users and make up a large part of our state’s economy. And then if they leave because the cost of business is getting outrageous, then we have a far bigger problem.”

Rep. Barry said it’s likely the bill would be changed or amended after PUC makes its recommendations. Most of the attendees applauded the move to table the bill until their study is done.

Other solar companies testified about how the bill in its current form would force them to close their doors and how they encourage young people to stay in New Hampshire, a problem the state is facing.

“Young people are leaving the state and we are providing clean tech jobs,” said Eric Shifflett of Granite State Solar. “Millennials are who we try to attract and hire. But this bill would put us out of business.”

 

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