How national goals for reducing emissions could affect New Hampshire

By: - April 30, 2021 6:20 am
Merrimack Station

Merrimack Station in Bow is the only coal plant still operating in the state, and it is used to meet peak demand. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Last week, President Joe Biden announced a national target of a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030, compared with 2005 levels. By 2050, the goal is to reach net zero.

Emissions in New Hampshire have fallen significantly in recent years. The most recent data points to a 37% reduction in emissions since 2005, with some of the decrease due to regional policies, such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. But these reductions will taper off if new policies aren’t adopted, according to a 2020 report by the New Hampshire Emissions Commission

While the new national target isn’t an enforceable requirement, some New Hampshire energy experts say it could still spur change in the state – especially paired with Biden’s plans for infrastructure and transportation.

“The infrastructure bill is going to be a big part of his plan to reduce emissions,” said Nick Krakoff, a staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation. Transportation is the largest single source of emissions in New Hampshire, accounting for 45% of emissions, according to the most recent data available.

“In most states the main source of emissions is from transportation,” Krakoff said.

Electric vehicles can play a big role in reducing emissions, but that will require a build out of charging infrastructure. Incentives for electric vehicles and charging stations are a big part of Biden’s infrastructure plan – $174 billion is set aside for tax credit incentives to help drivers switch to electric vehicles, as well as grants for states and cities to switch their fleets to electric. 

Some state leaders believe charging infrastructure will play an important role in the state’s tourism industry as more drivers go electric. 

But electric vehicles are only as clean as the electricity used to charge them.

Clean electricity

A clean electricity standard could also be used to require utilities to purchase electricity from carbon-free sources like nuclear, solar, and wind. Biden’s goal is to have carbon-free electricity by 2035 by using clean generators. The plan also calls out existing nuclear plants as well as carbon capture. 

But increasing reliance on renewables could create other problems on the grid, according to Meredith Angwin, a chemist whose work has focused on grid reliability and the author of “Shorting the Grid.”   

“That will lead to a very nonresilient and very difficult grid,” Angwin said about the new target for carbon-free electricity. That’s because renewables like solar and wind are intermittent, only coming online when the wind blows or the sun shines. But the electrical grid has to balance the electricity that’s being produced with electricity that’s being used in real time. 

A grid that has a lot of renewables depends on backup from sources that can be called on at any time. That includes natural gas turbines, hydroelectric power, which is limited, and batteries. 

Angwin is skeptical that batteries – which have yet to solve seasonal differences in renewable production – will be able to bridge that gap. She called the goal unrealistic. “It won’t get done,” said Angwin. “But the problem is what’s going to happen on the way to it not getting done: the reliability will go down.”

New Hampshire’s electricity supply has gotten considerably cleaner in the past 15 years, as coal plants across the state have started shutting down. Merrimack Station in Bow is the only coal plant still operating in the state, and it is used to meet peak demand, running when demand for electricity is at its highest. 

Emissions from electricity have dropped 74% from 2005 – but it’s not projected to keep decreasing, which means state policy will have to target areas like transportation and buildings to keep pace with national goals. And progress in those areas has been slow, with no reductions since 2011.

New Hampshire currently has a renewable portfolio standard that works in a similar way to a clean electricity standard. It requires utilities to buy a certain percentage of their energy from renewable sources. By 2025, 25.2% of energy purchases will be renewable. But to meet the new national target, that percentage would have to increase, Krakoff said.

“We have a lot of work to do in order to achieve the much more ambitious target,” Krakoff said.

Paths to progress

Sen. David Watters, a Dover Democrat who serves on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said New Hampshire has been stuck at the level put into statute years ago.

“We’ve been unable to pass legislation to set us on a target to reach some of these reasonable goals,” he said.

But Watters said this new target could help because it will likely come with federal incentives.

“I think we are going to see investments in a new energy economy in the infrastructure bill, certainly in the transportation bill. This gives a framework, but I think we should expect federal incentives,” he said.

He lauded Biden’s plan because meeting those goals would also mean new jobs for New Hampshire. Watters, a proponent of offshore wind, said the industry could lead to 25,000 jobs.

A bill he introduced – Senate Bill 151 – would have put New Hampshire on track to procure 800 megawatts of energy from offshore wind. The bill passed the Senate in a 23-1 vote but has since been retained in Senate Finance as lawmakers wait to see what happens with the governor’s proposal to create a Department of Energy.

“There’s huge potential here, but we have to get the state behind it,” Watters said. “We are now running behind. We have great port facilities, great workers, but I’m afraid we’re going to miss out.”

Clayton Mitchell, a policy scientist who focuses on natural resources and the environment at the University of New Hampshire, said national policy could jumpstart the state’s progress. Gov. Chris Sununu has also been “engaged” when it comes to offshore wind, Mitchell said. Sununu included an Office of Offshore Wind in his proposed budget.

Updating the state’s renewable portfolio standard is another way to require change. “It’s probably a good time to update that law,” said Mitchell.

“We have probably one of the lowest renewable portfolio standards in the region,” Mitchell said, but just having a standard puts New Hampshire in the middle of the pack nationally. Thirty states have some type of renewable portfolio standard, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Mitchell said much of the recent decrease in emissions is due to coal plants that have been retired. While electric generation was responsible for over a third of emissions in 2005, in 2018 it had dropped to just 13%, according to the Department of Environmental Services.

Emissions in New Hampshire have decreased, but energy usage has remained steady, and efforts to increase energy-efficiency programs have been stymied. Mitchell called it “nonsense.” He pointed to a disconnect between national pressure to meet emissions guidelines, while state efforts to reduce energy usage have been held up. 

In New Hampshire, transportation accounts for about 45% of emissions, while residential emissions linked to home heating accounts for another 20%. Commercial emissions, which are also mostly related to heating, make up 9% of the pie.

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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.