What a new law on energy efficiency means for New Hampshire

By: - February 28, 2022 5:50 am
Powerlines against a partly cloudy sky

The Legislature created HB 549 following a wave of controversy over a November PUC decision. (Getty Images)

On Thursday, Gov. Chris Sununu signed a new law setting a course for the future of state energy efficiency programs run through NHSaves.

House Bill 549 was rushed through the legislative process after a November decision from the Public Utilities Commission to cut the program’s funding while also denying a three-year consensus plan for unprecedented spending on energy efficiency.

The law has been lauded for providing needed certainty about the future of state programs, but advocates say it also limits the growth of energy efficiency programs by setting a cap on funding.

The policy will allow electric rates to grow faster than they would under a more ambitious policy, according to Sam Evans-Brown, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy organization Clean Energy New Hampshire. This winter some electric rates grew by as much as 60 percent, linked to the high cost of natural gas. Energy costs for heating have also soared, putting a strain on families and businesses. NHSaves includes measures like home weatherization and energy efficient appliances that help lower energy costs and drive down demand.

“It really is a bill that stanches the bleeding,” Evans-Brown said. “It doesn’t necessarily amount to a lot of progress.”

The law restores four important elements of the NHSaves program that had been removed in the November decision: evaluation and monitoring of programs, utility performance incentives, cost-benefit tests, and budget carry-forwards. And it sets funding for the program based on 2020 levels and provides for small annual increases to the program’s budget.

“It’s the first stage in the process of being able to get back to normal operating business,” Andrew Hatch said of the new law. Hatch is an energy efficiency program manager for Resilient Buildings Group, a company that has contracts with Liberty and Unitil to complete NHSaves projects. “I’ve been able to say with increasing certainty that there will be a program this year and we will be able to process incentives soon, and hopefully at the levels we’ve seen in the past,” he said.

Hatch said the program has been on shaky ground since 2020, when nine House Republicans sent a letter to the utilities commission opposing an ambitious spending plan for energy efficiency. That uncertainty has translated into members of the public assuming that the NHSaves program is gone, Hatch said; a big part of his job has been trying to set that straight and tell people that the programs are just delayed.  

Liberty plans to open waitlists in the coming weeks for programs that had been on hold and expects a return to normal by May. A spokesperson from Unitil said the company is hopeful about starting to accept new applications soon, but that delays may persist due to a backlog that began last fall when projects were paused. And Eversource and New Hampshire Electric Co-op’s programs are now open and accepting applications.

Another contractor, Ted Stiles, who works with the NHSaves program, said that while the programs are opening back up, he doesn’t expect the funding to last long, especially given the considerable waitlist of customers. Delays in the program have created a backlog of people who want to use the incentives but haven’t been able to. And Stiles said that while programs through New Hampshire Electric Co-op and Eversource have resumed, it’s now harder for individuals to qualify.

Stiles said he has some customers that get electricity through one provider and gas through another who qualify for an audit and a rebate. In the past, those customers could sometimes get a rebate through each utility; now they’re not being allowed to get either.

There is forward progress, said Stiles, but it is discouraging to see how unfair it is to different people based on where they live and who their provider is.

Legal action

The new law comes after the advocates and the utilities had filed an appeal over this issue before the New Hampshire Supreme Court. Now that the law has been signed, it raises some questions about whether the appeal is still relevant.

Nick Krakoff is a staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, one of the advocacy groups that filed an appeal with the Supreme Court. He said the law resolves some of the issues raised in the appeal but is still determining if other outstanding issues need to be addressed. He said he does not know when he will reach such a determination.

Krakoff called the new law “an all right stopgap approach.”

“House Bill 549 was a bipartisan response to this very radical order from the commission that cut funding, and while this bill restores funding to those levels, it limits to a large extent the possibility of increases to New Hampshire energy efficiency programs for the foreseeable future,” he said.

A lot of what is good about the law, Krakoff said, is that it reverses what was bad about the commission’s order.

Why did the commission make that decision?

The Legislature created HB 549 following a wave of controversy over a November decision that was signed by then-commissioner Dianne Martin on her last day in that position and commissioner Dan Goldner, who had recently been appointed to the position by Gov. Chris Sununu. Goldner’s background is in business, and he was criticized because of his lack of experience in energy policy.

Neither Martin nor Goldner have responded to requests for comment on the decision. The commission has pointed to a policy preventing commissioners of the quasi-judicial body from commenting on ongoing dockets. Martin is now the director of the administrative office at the courts.

The decision also followed a massive government reorganization that created the Department of Energy – a proposal that came from the governor’s office and has been championed by him.

In an interview, former PUC commissioner Kate Bailey said that change came at a cost, evident in the PUC’s November decision.

“The whole creation of the Department of Energy was to do two things,” Bailey said. “It was to have an energy policy agency, and it was to separate the advisers from the advocacy staff at the commission. That comes with a big cost, and you’re seeing that now.”

Bailey said that in the 30 years she worked for the commission, the decisions that most disappointed stakeholders happened when staff were separated from the commission.

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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.