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New Hampshire regulators are expected to propose final rules for community power programs on July 5, a crucial milestone for the 18 communities and one county hoping to begin buying electric power on their own.
The announcement comes as at least one of the state’s major utilities, Liberty, is seeking to double the per-kilowatt-hour price it charges ratepayers, citing rising generation costs at natural gas-fired plants. Eversource is expected to follow suit.
“The rate spikes we are seeing are the perfect example of why community power is a good option for towns to lower energy costs for their customers,” said Henry Herndon, a consultant working with the Community Power Coalition of New Hampshire. “The spikes are a direct result of the distribution companies’ regulated procurement process, which requires them to go to market now, which just so happens to be the exact peak of the market.”
New Hampshire’s community power law, signed into law in 2019, authorizes municipalities to procure power on their own, using the collective buying power of all of their residents and businesses to secure competitive prices.
They will be able to actively manage their power portfolios, making it easier for them to deliver lower rates to customers, Herndon said. And they can choose where their power comes from, which can help those municipalities that have set decarbonization goals.
The distribution companies will continue to deliver the electricity and handle billing.
After the state’s Public Utilities Commission releases its rules proposal, which has been in the works since January, it will go to the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules for approval.
Once the rules are finalized, municipalities will be able to submit their aggregation plans to the PUC. The commission has 60 days to deem a plan non-compliant; if no action is taken, the plan is automatically approved, Herndon said.
“We are excited to see some progress,” said Jackson Kaspari, resilience coordinator for the town of Dover, a member of the coalition. “It’s crucial to us being able to have our aggregation plans approved, so we can actually launch on our target date in 2024.”
Of the Community Power Coalition’s 18 member municipalities, eight have locally approved aggregation plans ready for submission to the PUC, Herndon said. Lebanon, Hanover, Harrisville, Exeter, Rye, Walpole, Enfield and Plainfield all hope to launch their initial power programs in spring 2023, he said.
Utility customers in those communities will be automatically enrolled in the power programs but will be able to opt out if they choose.
The coalition’s other member communities, in addition to Dover, are Durham, Newmarket, Nashua, Warner, Pembroke, Hudson, Webster, New London, and Portsmouth. Cheshire County is also a member.
The full membership represents about 20% of New Hampshire’s population; more than two dozen other municipalities are interested in joining, according to comments filed by the coalition in the PUC’s rule-making docket.
“Community power aggregations represent a ready means to break the regulated utilities’ monopoly over the provision of default supply,” coalition vice chair Clifton Below, a Lebanon city councilor, said in the filing.
Progress toward getting community power aggregations up and running was derailed last year by legislation introduced at the request of Eversource, Herndon said. The legislation effectively “gutted” the community power law, rendering the entire concept unworkable, he said.
The coalition led a grassroots effort to oppose the legislation, which, through a negotiated process, was eventually heavily amended to protect local authority over power purchases.
Donald Kreis, the state consumer advocate, said he is optimistic that the community power option will deliver some benefits from deregulation to residential ratepayers, something that has yet to happen since the state passed legislation in 1996 requiring the utilities to sell off their generation assets.
While the community power aggregators will be entering the same “challenging” wholesale market as everyone else, “from a residential customer perspective, that kind of load aggregation has to be better than what we’re getting now by sticking with the utilities’ default energy service,” Kreis said. “The utilities aren’t really managing their procurement. They just put out the procurement every six months and pick the low bidder.”
Participating communities will also be able to deploy other local initiatives that will make them less reliant on the wholesale market, and there will be opportunities for collaboration, whether it be simply information sharing or working together on net metering projects, Kaspari said.
The primary objectives for Dover, he said, are to offer citizens oversight of where their electricity comes from, and just as importantly, “provide it at a rate that is below the current default rate.”
If the latter proves impossible, he said, “we won’t launch.”