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As community power programs expand across NH, hurdles to renewable energy persist

Power lines, electric grid in NH
Dan Tuohy
Since community power programs launched in New Hampshire, advocates have said it could support the development of more local renewable energy resources, moving the clean energy transition forward in the state.

A change that could have helped community power programs use more local renewable energy failed at the State House, after a late-breaking objection from the state’s Department of Energy.

House Bill 1600, requested by the Community Power Coalition of New Hampshire, would have charted a path for solar arrays or other local energy sources up to five megawatts to serve community power programs.

The bill’s prime sponsor and other community power supporters say they will continue to work with the state’s Department of Energy to make changes that would enable community power programs to use more local renewables.

Community power is growing quickly in New Hampshire. The coalition has 57 municipalities and two county members participating right now. Almost 40 other communities are partnering with consultants from Standard Power and Freedom Energy Logistics to coordinate community power programs.

Those programs allow towns and cities to supply electricity to their residents instead of a traditional utility company. The utility company still delivers the electricity.

Since the inception of community power programs in New Hampshire, advocates for that system have said it could support the development of more local renewable energy resources, moving the clean energy transition forward in the state.

The effort to expand the use of renewables in community power programs passed with bipartisan support in the House. But while it was being considered by the Senate, officials from the New Hampshire Department of Energy wrote a letter opposing the change.

“We are concerned that this significant change to the state’s approach needs a much more thorough vetting,” said Chris Ellms, the department’s deputy commissioner.

Ellms also noted that regulators wanted to consider how the change would fit in with ongoing discussions about net metering – the way many renewable energy projects get compensated for the power they produce – currently underway at the state’s Public Utilities Commission.

While the bill was in the Senate, lawmakers amended it to create a study commission. After another revision by both the House and Senate, a stripped-down version of HB 1600 was approved by both bodies, including only a small housekeeping change to existing law.

Clifton Below, the chair of the Community Power Coalition, said the bill would have charted a path for programs to start using locally-produced electricity to serve their customers.

Dozens of developers have proposed projects between 1 and 5 megawatts – too small to be required to sell power into New England’s wholesale market, but large enough to provide meaningful power to a community.

The only way for those energy facilities to sell their power right now, Below said, is for them to get compensated using a utility company’s default service rate and provide credits to municipal buildings or school districts. HB 1600 would have allowed developers to be compensated by a town’s community power aggregation, effectively serving the energy needs of customers of those programs.

Developers, Below said, approached the community power coalition about potential projects when the legislative change looked possible.

“Potentially contracting with some of these projects to offset local load could be a very effective way both to get more of these projects built, but do it in a way that is financially responsible and doesn't create cost shifting problems,” he said.

Josh Elliott, the director of policy and programs at the New Hampshire Department of Energy, said the bill included too many open questions.

“We don't have any objections to necessarily what their core drive is, but we need to make sure that within this context, within this regulatory structure, we are not accidentally opening the door for someone else to drive a bus through,” he said.

Advocates say they’ve been responsive to the state’s concerns. And for some lawmakers, the late-breaking challenge felt like a delay without a clear reason.

“The fact is, any bill could have vague unintended consequences,” said Tom Cormen, a Lebanon Democrat and the bill’s main sponsor. “You could make that argument against any bill.”

Cormen said he would make another effort at the legislation next year.

Updated: June 18, 2024 at 12:31 PM EDT
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include towns coordinating programs with an additional community power consultant.
Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.