What would a new Department of Energy mean for New Hampshire?

By: - April 16, 2021 6:45 am
Power lines with trees in the background

Now that the law has gone into effect, municipalities can start submitting community power plans to the Public Utilities Commission. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

A proposal to create a new Department of Energy would be a major overhaul of how energy policy is made and regulated in New Hampshire. Clean-energy advocates are eager for change. With energy policy and regulation spread between various state agencies, some key decisions and the allocation of funding have been delayed for years, leaving New Hampshire lagging behind its neighbors in various initiatives, such as energy efficiency and the development of renewable resources. 

This proposal would bring those decisions under the purview of one department, a move Gov. Chris Sununu says would allow for greater accountability and efficiency. Unlike most New England states, New Hampshire’s Public Utilities Commission is a stand-alone entity, which the reorganization would also change.

While Democrats have championed the creation of such a department in the past, this plan has faced fierce opposition from Democrats on the House Science, Technology, and Energy Committee, who sought to remove it from the budget entirely.

Rep. Rebecca McWilliams, a Concord Democrat, called the plan a “power grab” and criticized Sununu for including the 100-plus page proposal in the budget, instead of introducing it as a bill. The House committee process would have allowed for input from the utilities, the Public Utilities Commission, and the public. 

“The bill was written behind closed doors by the executive branch and added to the budget at the 11th hour,” said McWilliams. “The public has never seen it.”

In a written statement from Eversource – the state’s largest utility – a spokesperson called the proposal “a positive signal.”

Rep. Peter Somssich, a Portsmouth Democrat, said the governor’s proposal and process has been “totally chaotic.” Somssich is a ranking member of the House Science, Technology, and Energy Committee.

SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.

“We never had a briefing or an inkling he was going to do this,” said Somssich. 

“The fact that our committee was not consulted, advised, or even briefed is something that we resent a little bit,” he said.

Somssich worried that the Legislature could hinder the proposed department. He pointed to HB 373 which, if passed, would prevent the Department of Environmental Services from discussing low carbon fuels, “unless specifically directed by the governor or designated representative.”

“If they’re trying to stifle the DES with these types of bills, are they going to do this with all the entities in the Department of Energy?” said Somssich.

While McWilliams supports the concept of a new Energy Department, she said this proposal would erode the independence of the Public Utilities Commission – which would be administratively attached to the department. This means that administration that used to happen in the utilities commission would now take place within the new department.  

The reorganization would attach the Office of the Consumer Advocate and the Site Evaluation Committee in a similar way. The Site Evaluation Committee handles the siting, construction, and operation of energy facilities. Energy issues that are currently with the Office of Strategic Management would also come under the new department. 

Consumer Advocate Don Kreis supports the proposed reorganization.

“It was a good idea when it was first proposed by Rep. Bob Backus, who is a Democrat, and former chair of the House Committee on Science, Technology, and Energy, and it is a good idea now that it is being championed by our Republican governor,” said Kreis.

He said his office would remain independent under the proposal.

The attempt to remove the Department of Energy from the budget failed in the House last week. Now that the budget has passed the House, it will be reviewed by the Senate.

“This is an insidious effort to destroy the PUC and the Site Evaluation Committee,” said McWilliams.

But some proponents of clean energy say that the opposite may be true, and that giving energy a home in state government would likely lead to better policy outcomes and solve serious problems at the utilities commission. 

“For an issue as important to everyone’s day-to-day life, I think this is a positive step forward for the state,” said Jim O’Brien, director of external affairs for the Nature Conservancy in New Hampshire.

O’Brien said that having a dedicated commissioner would help to coordinate an approach to energy issues. The new department would be a reliable source of information for decision-makers on complex issues, which is why the Nature Conservancy has been pushing for the creation of such a department for years.

“What we’ve seen, especially on clean energy, is a stop-and-go approach,” O’Brien said. “Every two years we revisit all of the energy and clean-energy decisions we’ve made and battle them out again.”

A new department would be responsible for creating a long-term strategy that could offer some much-needed stability.

O’Brien said that the reorganization was overdue.

Problems at the utilities commission

Democratic criticism of the proposed energy department has focused in part on the utilities commission and its ability to function independently. But some clean-energy advocates say that the current organization is untenable.

“I think it’s very naive to think that there’s currently not political influence over the commission,” said Madeleine Mineau, executive director of the nonprofit Clean Energy NH. Mineau said that part of the problem with the status quo is that the state or governor’s position is never explicitly stated in proceedings.

She is optimistic that a change would improve the situation.

“In a way, I feel like it can’t be worse than right now,” she said.

Two major funds that would have a significant impact on energy have languished. While $4.6 million of the Volkswagen settlement funds was set aside to build charging infrastructure, so far that money has not been put to use in New Hampshire. And no agreement has been reached about how a $5.2 million fund from the Eversource divestiture should be spent.

Important decisions have been delayed, like a grid modernization docket that dates back to 2015. A decision on an energy-efficiency program slated to start in 2021 is months overdue.

“Inaction is extremely harmful,” said Mineau. “Right now the commission is literally, I feel, doing nothing.”

She is optimistic that under a new Department of Energy, these decisions would move forward, in part because it would give interested organizations more access and allow for better communication. Right now, commissioners are walled off because of ex parte rules. Because the commission is a quasi-judicial body, commissioners and staff can’t comment on cases that are ongoing.

Under the current setup, even grant and rebate programs are behind what Mineau calls “the wall of silence.”

“No one can ever speak publicly about anything,” said Mineau. She calls for more transparency and accessibility. 

Plus, there are accountability issues within the staff.

“Right now, they’re not accountable to anybody,” Kreis said. “They are essentially free to pursue their own personal policy agendas because of the way the PUC is structured.”

He said the arrangement has also created problems when it comes to due process. While staff members present evidence and arguments to the commission like other parties, they are then also a part of private conversations with the commissioners when they deliberate about decisions.

“That is a no-no if you are, like me, a fan of due process,” Kreis said.   

‘Personnel is policy’

The new Department of Energy would have a commissioner, who would be appointed by the governor and approved by the Executive Council.

Rob Werner, state director of the League of Conservation Voters, said this position could help create greater accountability.

“It all comes down to leadership in terms of who is that person,” Werner said.

“Given the current lineup in state government, I have concerns about that aspect of it,” he said.

A commissioner would serve a four-year term. 

“Chris Sununu is a Republican and a lot of people disagree with the Republican take on energy, but we’re not going to have only Republican governors. The rest of the time, right, there will be other governors, with other policy preferences when it comes to energy,” Kreis said.

Because the commissioner is not a political appointee, a subsequent governor would have to wait until the four-year term ended to choose a new person to serve in the role. 

While the governor’s proposal includes funding for the Offshore Wind Industry Development Office, Sununu also has a track record of vetoing clean energy bills. Though he’s been skeptical of climate science in the past, he now accepts mainstream science on the subject. 

In addition to a commissioner of the Department of Energy, the proposal also creates a deputy commissioner position and four division directors. Those include directors of policy and programs, administration, enforcement, and regulatory support. Six utility analyst positions would also be created within the department.

If approved by the Senate, the plan would transfer powers, functions, and duties from the utilities commission to the Department of Energy starting on July 1.

 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. She previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.

MORE FROM AUTHOR