Clean energy advocates lament legislative inaction as energy prices continue to climb

By: - June 20, 2022 5:53 am
An electric meter on the side of a brick building

New Hampshire is paying a steep price for the state’s reliance on fossil fuels. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Record increases in energy prices drew the ire of executive councilors last week, with councilors questioning Liberty Utilities’ request to increase electricity rates by nearly 50 percent. They sent a letter admonishing the Public Utilities Commission, which is expected to approve the request.

But there may be little the PUC can do to lower costs now, given the state and region’s dependence on fossil fuels like natural gas, used to heat and power homes. Those fossil fuels are also driving climate change.

Noting the grave impact on ratepayers, Consumer Advocate Don Kreis said these price hikes should spur the state to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels. But those efforts failed this past legislative session despite pressure from clean energy and environmental advocates.

They lobbied against policies that would curtail the expansion of renewable energy, while defending measures that are already in place, such as energy efficiency and net metering.

But, they said, meaningful progress – the kind of progress that could lower prices and combat climate change – was often absent.

“It’s a little unfortunate we didn’t make as much progress this year as we had hoped for,” said Kelly Buchanan, director of regulatory affairs for Clean Energy New Hampshire.

Jim O’Brien, director of external affairs at the New Hampshire Nature Conservancy, agreed the session was largely about playing defense, which included combating misinformation about the fundamental science of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

“What we’re seeing now in the price of gas I hope spurs us as a state to start thinking about solutions like energy efficiency, and how do we break that reliance on natural gas and fossil fuels by bringing in renewable energy,” O’Brien said.

Rep. Michael Harrington, a Strafford Republican, advocates for a different approach: increasing fracking and building new gas pipelines in the state. He believes high energy costs are a national issue more effectively addressed through national policies, where only minor changes can be made at the state level.

“There’s not much anyone at the state level can do about (higher energy prices),” he said. “Going back to more fracking, more drilling – making it easier, not harder, to put in pipelines.”

Harrington said legislative action on energy efficiency was one win.

Energy efficiency

After the PUC brought energy efficiency programs to a halt by cutting the funding in November, lawmakers acted, fast-tracking House Bill 549 to restore funding to the programs.  Energy efficiency is one of the few levers individuals and businesses can use to reduce their energy costs in the face of sky-high energy prices. And using less energy also generates less greenhouse gas emissions.

While the bill kept energy efficiency programs alive, it didn’t allow them to expand as aggressively as some advocates hoped.

Using less energy saves money and means fewer emissions. In the long run, it’s less expensive to pay for energy efficiency measures than it is to purchase the next unit of energy, according to Kreis. That’s why advocates have pushed for more spending on energy efficiency now to keep costs lower for everyone in the future.

Offshore wind

Advocates of renewable energy have pushed for wind and solar as alternative sources of energy that could both be cheaper and cleaner in the long run. It doesn’t cost anything for the sun to shine or the wind to blow, and generating wind and solar power doesn’t emit carbon, which is driving global warming.

Lawmakers this session passed two bills that address offshore wind projects amid regional discussion of siting future projects in the nearby Gulf of Maine. Previous legislative attempts to require state utilities to purchase offshore wind failed and weren’t taken up again this session.

Those bills were “baby steps forward,” said Jim Monahan, a lobbyist who represents power generators and renewable developers. “But they’re steps that need to be taken.”

Senate Bill 268 lays the groundwork to give New Hampshire a say on projects developed as far as 200 miles offshore, well beyond the state’s jurisdiction of waters within three miles of its coastline. It was signed by the governor in late May, and will take effect on July 26.

Senate Bill 440 instructs the Department of Energy to keep the governor, Legislature, and energy regulators up to date on offshore wind development in the Gulf of Maine. And the department’s office of offshore wind must also make recommendations on developing offshore wind in the Gulf of Maine and criteria for state public utilities that want to purchase this energy. The report is due at the end of June 2024. SB 440 took effect on June 7, the day the governor signed it.

Other alternative fuels

Other alternative fuels also got the green light this past session: keeping Burgess Biopower, which burns low-grade wood, open for another year and paving the way for future renewable natural gas projects.

Both come with environmental and cost concerns.

Burning low-grade wood to generate electricity is highly inefficient, and the plant can stay open only with the support of ratepayer subsidies. That comes at a cost of a few dollars a month for Eversource customers. Senate Bill 271 gives the plant another 12-month extension, suspending a cap on subsidies for another year. Proponents say it’s a way to diversify the state’s fuel sources with a local and renewable fuel and an economic pillar of the North Country.

Renewable natural gas is an emerging technology, and Senate Bill 424 lays out a process for utilities to purchase it. The bill, which has not yet been signed into law, would allow utilities to charge ratepayers for the cost. Some renewable natural gas proposals cost around three times the price of natural gas. While renewable natural gas promises to capture and burn methane – which is a harmful greenhouse gas – it’s raised concerns about leakages.

Electric vehicles

Transportation is the sector responsible for putting the most greenhouse gas emissions into New Hampshire’s environment. Two bills aimed at expanding electric vehicles in the state failed: One would have created an electric bus pilot program, and the other would have instructed state agencies to switch their fleets over to electric vehicles. A third that would have created a fund for receiving federal money earmarked for electric vehicle infrastructure also failed.

“So for how incremental those bills were, that was surprising they met such struggles,” Buchanan said. She said this is an area Clean Energy New Hampshire is likely to focus on moving forward.

“There’s a lot of interest in the utility and clean energy community for reducing our emissions in the transportation sector because they are so significant,” she said.

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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.