Legislature poised to act on large environmental policy bills

By: - June 10, 2021 6:15 am
Solar panels on the roof of a building

Senate Bill 91 would require the state to adopt rules about energy storage. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

This story was updated on June 10, 2021 at 12:11 p.m. with new information. It was also corrected to clarify that SB 91 addresses small in-state energy generators, not out-of-state generators as was previously stated.

Several large environmental bills have made their way through the House, including two omnibus environmental bills approved following floor amendments to adjust their language.

A third bill, Senate Bill 129, was also approved, removing the requirement that Fish and Game evaluate all permits for habitat impacts to endangered and threatened species. That would speed up the permitting process, but Democrats from the Fish and Game and Marine Resources Committee opposed the bill, arguing that it would weaken protections for endangered species.

If passed, here’s what the bills would mean for environmental policy and regulation in New Hampshire.

Renewable energy policy

Senate Bill 91 is an omnibus bill addressing renewable energy. It originally contained five measures but was whittled down to four in the House Committee on Science, Technology, and Energy.

The bill would require the state to adopt rules about energy storage, as batteries are becoming more commonplace. With more electric cars on the road, more car batteries are charging from the grid, but they can also store energy that can then be used to lower peak load. The bill would also require the state to investigate energy storage – including how to compensate individuals who do implement a battery, or another energy-storing device, in their home or business.

The second part of the bill clarifies that hydroelectric generators sharing equipment are still considered separately for the purposes of net metering – an energy policy that allows an entity producing excess energy to receive a credit. There’s a cap on how much they can receive credit for; this bill makes it clear that even if a hydro facility shares equipment with other generators, the cap is applied to each individual generator. Currently, the cap is 1 megawatt, although the Legislature is considering a bill to raise it to 5 megawatts for municipalities.

Language in this section of the bill was debated on the House floor last week. The disagreement fell along party lines, with Republicans pushing to retain language “requiring the Public Utilities Commission to ensure costs are not shifted in developing alternative tariffs for net energy metering.”

Cost-shifting is when a ratepayer has to chip in for a project that isn’t directly benefiting them, and it’s often used as an argument against net metering. As a policy, net metering can encourage the development of renewable energy by including “adders,” or a few additional cents per kilowatt hour of energy to incentivize development. Cost-shifting happens if one neighbor installs a solar panel, and her neighbors subsequently have to pay more in higher electricity rates to subsidize it. Many in the solar industry argue that cost-shifting doesn’t actually occur.  

Democrats argued that the language Republicans were pushing for hadn’t been appropriately discussed.  

Rep. Lee Oxenham, a Plainfield Democrat, introduced a floor amendment in Friday’s session that would delete four lines of text. The lines in question give absolute instructions to the Public Utilities Commission to not approve programs that would create cost-shifting.

“Unlike the other changes that we just approved, this small section never received the scrutiny of a public hearing. Not in the Senate, not in the House. It was never brought up in a work session,” Oxenham said.

Rep. Michael Harrington, a Strafford Republican, opposed the amendment.

“Let’s make sure we’re not making one group of customers pay more so other groups of customers can pay less. Simple as that,” Harrington said.

The amendment was defeated, 174-194, and the bill was subsequently approved. The third portion of the bill clarifies when different rates for “low-moderate income community” solar projects would go into effect. These projects receive an “adder,” or extra cents per kilowatt hour generated by the solar array. For projects approved by the utilities commission between July 2019 and July 2021, the adder is 3 cents, after which it decreases to 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour.

The final section of the bill establishes a study commission to look at whether small  energy producers can sell energy in New Hampshire and receive credit for reducing the load on the grid.

Omnibus legislation regarding the Seacoast, environment

Another omnibus bill passed the House with several proposals that focus on the Seacoast, among other measures. The bill was sponsored by Sen. David Watters, a Dover Democrat.

Watters said the bill will head to a committee of conference to iron out some of the details, like a solid waste reduction plan that the House took out of the bill.

“The deletion of that plan, that creates a very big problem,” Watters said. There has been mounting discussion around the solid waste crisis the state is facing, with space in landfills running out and heated arguments over where it is appropriate to site new landfills.

On Thursday, Watters clarified that this problem would be resolved, since the solid waste plan has been added in another bill, House Bill 413. That bill also establishes a working group to address solid waste management planning and instructs the Department of Environmental Services to adopt rules regarding compost.

The committee of conference will also address the part of the bill dealing with zoonotic disease. Watters says he expects that to go smoothly. 

The omnibus bill has seven parts, the first establishing a coastal program that would be administered by the Department of Environmental Services. The program would be responsible for managing the coast in sustainable use of its land and water. This would include protecting natural resources like wetlands, floodplains, estuaries, and sand dunes, as well as fish and other wildlife.

The bill would also establish a coastal fund. If passed, this part of the bill would be enacted on July 1. Watters said the coastal program was an important part of the legislation, which would allow federal funding to help municipalities manage coastal zones.

Managing the coastal region “is beyond the capacity of most municipalities,” Watters said.

Another part of the bill establishes testing methodologies for pathogens present in water where people are swimming. Watters said these methodologies were recommended by local water system managers, which are more appropriate and accurate for use in New Hampshire than federal regulations set by the EPA, which may be based on other bodies of water, such as Chesapeake Bay.

And it sets up a surcharge of between $10 and $25 on some saltwater licenses that would then fund coastal cleanup, including derelict fishing gear. Fishermen pushed for the measure, which includes a fee exemption for those who help to clean up the old gear.

Secondly, the bill extends the deadline for the PFAS firefighting foam take-back program. Currently, the deadline for the program to start is July 1, but the bill would push back the start of the program until 2023.  

Some firefighting foams contain toxic chemicals that are linked to cancer and other health issues. PFAS are called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down over time, but bioaccumulate.

The Department of Environmental Services would be responsible for determining how much the program would cost and how to safely dispose of the foams that contain PFAS once they are returned to the state.

The third part of the bill addresses zoonotic disease transmission, finding that three out of four new or emerging diseases are zoonotic – which means a disease that can spread from animals to humans. The bill instructs Fish and Game to monitor the import of fish and animals and to assess the risk of zoonotic transmission of disease.

The bill also contains provisions regarding live animal markets and prohibits the presence of wildlife species that are likely to carry zoonotic diseases. This legislation comes on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, a virus that is thought to have originally spread from animals to humans.

The zoonotic disease portion of the bill will also be up for discussion during the committee of conference, although Watters doesn’t expect it to be a major sticking point.

The final piece of the bill deals with water withdrawal and the impact it may have on the water table. If someone withdraws a significant amount of water, it could impact other people’s wells. 

“We’re going to be seeing a whole lot of water wars coming up with drought and development,” Watters said. The bill would require the state to set up rules about water withdrawals.

“There’s a lot of good environmental policy in this bill with bipartisan support,” Watters said. “Let’s hope we can bring it over the finish line.”

Endangered species

The House also approved a bill last week that addresses environmental impacts to endangered or threatened species habitats. The bill would allow the executive director of Fish and Game to accept payment for the “unavoidable loss of such habitat.”

It would establish a mitigation fund to compensate for those losses – a measure House Democrats said could allow developers to bypass the Endangered Species Conservation Act by making a donation.

There was disagreement over whether the bill would strengthen environmental protections or effectively weaken them.

“SB 129 weakens the protections to New Hampshire wildlife afforded to them in the Endangered Species Act,” said Rep. Cathryn Harvey, a Spofford Democrat. She criticized the bill, which she said contained “vague and undefinable words,” such as “appreciably,” referring to language that state agencies must act to ensure that actions do not “appreciably jeopardize the continued existence of such species.”

The committee majority argued that the measure was necessary to address a bottleneck caused by a requirement for Fish and Game to evaluate all permit requests.

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee reported on energy and environment for New Hampshire Bulletin. She also 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.