State House Memo: Public deserves stronger role in energy project siting process
New Hampshire is facing a new reality of increasing energy development. As a state we need to be diversifying and increasing our energy resources with conventional sources, with clean and renewable energy and with local distributed energy systems. Our energy siting process must ensure benefits to our communities, our natural resources and the state as a whole.
Last spring, the chairman of the state’s energy project siting board – the Site Evaluation Committee – told a House committee that the current process was close to a “breaking point,” and reforms were needed.
In response, the Legislature passed SB 99, requiring the Office of Energy and Planning to conduct a public stakeholder process to identify the issues of greatest concern and issue a report to assist the Legislature in identifying reforms.
We will be introducing a bipartisan amendment that seeks moderate but meaningful reforms to the state’s siting process. Our amendment has three specific goals: strengthen public participation, guarantee adequate resources and ensure that projects provide a net community benefit.
The perception today is that the current SEC process does not assure members of the public that their voices are being heard. A consistent message in the SB 99 report is the need for a meaningful pre-application process through which the public and affected communities can be assured that an applicant is integrating public input on a proposed project. This is a simple solution that will bring great benefits.
The current process is complicated and formal – comparable to a court proceeding – making it difficult for average citizens to engage fully. We believe the process would benefit greatly by the addition of a coordinator whose job is to assist citizens and municipalities, and to ensure that their issues are adequately represented.
Fifteen high-ranking state employees currently sit on the SEC – the largest such siting Board in New England – which stretches their capacity to fulfill their primary job obligations. We need a structure that takes advantage of the expertise of our state agencies but doesn’t take leadership away from their core responsibilities. We believe that a smaller SEC is in the state’s best interests.
We also believe that the public needs a stronger voice in the decision-making process. Public appointments to supplement the SEC membership will provide for additional and important perspectives on projects and their value to the state and the communities where they will be sited.
A re-structured SEC needs to have adequate staff resources to efficiently carry out its duties. The lack of staff capacity and current ad hoc funding has been identified as a major weakness in the current process. New Hampshire needs a tiered application fee that can be used to offset administrative and public coordination aspects of the process.
The public was clear that affected communities need to understand the benefits that projects will have. While our current process focuses on determining whether there are no “unreasonable adverse impacts,” the SEC does not have a mandate to fully weigh and balance the costs and benefits of projects as a whole. We propose requiring that the SEC weigh all impacts—positive and negative – and determine whether an energy project is indeed in the public interest.
We are committed to using the information gathered as part of the SB 99 process to make modest but meaningful reforms this legislative session. The energy decisions facing us are fundamental to the environment, economy and quality of life that we all enjoy. Ensuring that the public’s voice is heard in making these difficult decisions is essential to our success.
(Sen. Jeanie Forrester is a Republican from Meredith. Sen. Martha Fuller-Clark is a Democrat from Portsmouth. Sen. Jeb Bradley is Republican from Wolfeboro. Sen. Jeff Woodburn is a Democrat from Dalton.)