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Committee combines bills on PSNH divestiture, wind farms

Lawmakers combined two significant energy bills, one dealing with divestiture of Public Service of New Hampshire’s assets and the other setting stricter requirements for wind farms, during a committee of conference yesterday. The package bill will go to the House and Senate floors for final votes next week.

Both bills aim to better address New Hampshire’s energy future while keeping property owners and ratepayers in mind. The wind farm portion of the bill is significantly watered down from the bill’s original version, presented at the beginning of the year, which would have placed a moratorium on wind projects. The final version outlines specific criteria the Site Evaluation Committee, a state entity that approves energy projects, must evaluate before giving approvals. The second portion of the bill gives the Public Utilities Commission the authority to decide whether PSNH should sell off some of its assets.

House and Senate members of the committee of conference said they have been carefully working on the bill for months and have crafted something they believe will pass both chambers.

Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, a Portsmouth Democrat, is a co-sponsor of the PSNH legislation. PSNH’s costs are rising as its consumer base has been shrinking. The goal behind selling off plants would be to save ratepayers money, but ratepayers would be left paying off the difference between the plants’ book and market value. Giving the PUC power to tell PSNH to sell its assets is better than leaving that power with the Legislature because it takes politics out of the equation, she said.

“I do not think that what happens to PSNH should be a political decision. I think it should be an economic decision,” Fuller Clark said.

On the wind energy side, the bill lays out eight factors the Site Evaluation Committee must address before approving new wind projects: visual impacts; cumulative impacts on natural, scenic, recreational and cultural resources; health and safety impacts; sound impacts; the project’s effect on the environment, including air and water quality; fire protection plans; site decommissioning and any other “best practical measures to avoid, minimize or mitigate adverse effects.”

The key behind crafting a passable bill was to include enough specifics to make sure the projects are vetted thoroughly but not to be so specific that the bill would in effect prohibit wind projects.

“It is trying to address the concerns and find a balance between moving renewable energy forward and protecting property owners,” Fuller Clark said.

The new evaluation criteria would go into place 60 days after the bill passes. House members will vote on the bill next Wednesday, and senators will vote next Thursday.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

Ceding the decision to the PUC doesn't take politics out of the equation. It just puts the decision in the hands of some politically appointed - largely former utility employees - who don't have to answer to voters for the decisions they make.

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