My Turn: Abandoning Concord Steam amounts to a gamble on gas

For the Monitor
Published: 9/24/2016 12:16:30 AM

Although Liberty Utility’s petition to the Public Utilities Commission to buy Concord Steam, with the intention of converting the 180 buildings it serves to natural gas when the company’s doors close next spring, may look like it’s “saving the day,” it would just as surely invite serious repercussions down the road.

A more transparent and thorough examination of the long-term effects and implications of the proposal is sorely needed, including the taxpayers’ welfare, the state’s economy, its climate impacts and its cost-effectiveness over time.

Our state, with its 28 impacted buildings, including the State House, needs to stop to consider the example it would set for New Hampshire communities and businesses if it decides to support such a massive investment in out-of-state fossil fuels (particularly fracked gas) in this day and age.

Separating myths from reality: Fracked gas is not expected to remain a “cheaper fuel.” And it is not a “cleaner fuel.” Speculative promises delivered as facts and misleading statements using well-publicized myths need to be seen for what they are and rejected.

We need to be guided by our Yankee values of energy conservation, independence and long-term cost-effectiveness:

Gas boilers are not cheap – $10,000 to $20,000-plus for most buildings, $600,000 for the city of Concord and $15 million for the state (taxpayers).

Building owners will be wedded to fossil fuels for 20-plus years while federal mandates to reduce greenhouse gas emissions increase and prices continue to plummet for renewables and battery storage.

Long-term cost-effectiveness will be hit by newer stringent regulations for hydraulic fracturing slowing construction timelines and raising prices, and extraction becoming more difficult and expensive.

Indirect economic costs due to infrastructure damage from more destructive storms are predicted to continue escalating as a result of climate change, especially provoked by methane (fracked gas). The EPA states: “Pound for pound, the comparative impact of CH4 (methane) on climate change is more than 25 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period.” And within its first 20 years in the atmosphere, methane is over 80 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas.

Electrical engineer, Pat Martin, pointed out that the numbers offered by PUC staff for gas prices “may be right for a day,” but “not over a 5-year average.”

New Hampshire’s 10-year state energy strategy stresses the need for energy diversity to avoid price volatility. And we’re already over 50 percent gas.

Our best hope for low natural gas prices is to not use more.

The previous director of New Hampshire’s Office of Energy and Planning stated: “Increasing reliance on one fuel, namely natural gas, is what caused the wholesale price spikes in the winter of 2013-2014 in the first place.”

Two Energy Information Administration studies concluded that exporting natural gas to lucrative overseas markets will raise its price domestically, and 2015 exports grew 18 percent.

Wouldn’t New Hampshire’s economy be better served by investing in proposals that sustainably use our state’s own wood products, processed by in-state workers? Consider wood pellet systems, for instance, like the nonprofit Northern Forest Center’s low emissions campus-sized systems or Green City Power’s proposal to rebuild Concord Steam’s plant into a modernized, high efficiency (85 percent), low emissions, cogeneration bio-mass plant for $20 million.

It would provide heat and electricity, which lowers their price, and would use New Hampshire wood debris and local workers year round. Plus it wouldn’t require conversion disruptions or boiler costs, which raise Liberty’s price for delivered heat above theirs. Why didn’t the state sign a long-term contract and seal that deal?

Instead we gamble. Twice Liberty representatives have said they won’t have enough fuel after 2017 – at the Aug. 19 technical meeting and last spring at a PUC hearing, when it was the reason Liberty “needed” a gas contract from the NED pipeline. Questioned at the Sept. 9 PUC hearing, its representative simply said Liberty will handle all the Concord Steam customers, but no more. Until when? And Liberty already knows what the coming winters will bring?

Is the state willing to risk the fallout from this gamble? Who wants to gamble on expensive gas boiler conversions? The city? Concord High School? Businesses? Taxpayers?

(Beverly Edwards lives in Temple.)

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