Legislators eye changes to incentives for green energy projects, worrying businesses and advocates

Last modified: 2/5/2015 2:37:44 PM
Scott Nichols offers an alternative to customers who want to heat their homes with a local, renewable fuel.

He sells wood pellet boilers, and has done so for more than a decade. But, the starting cost for consumers to install the technology can be expensive – that was, until a state rebate program was launched to help make the boilers more affordable.

In 2009, New Hampshire began offering financial incentives to residents and businesses to install renewable energy technology – such as solar panels or the high-efficiency wood pellet boilers Nichols sells – as part of a legislative initiative aimed at curbing the state’s use of fossil fuels.

Since then, the state has given out millions of dollars in grants and rebates to projects big and small, including more than $1.1 million in rebates to help homeowners install wood pellet boilers and roughly $5.5 million to residential customers who put in solar panels.

“Every single sale involves a rebate,” said Nichols, who runs Tarm USA in Lyme. “I don’t know whether people would buy it without.”

Now, the state’s rebate fund is facing a potential raid by lawmakers looking to plug holes in the budget. And, several bills filed this session aim to make big changes to the program, which could lead to cuts in rebate funding.

In response, renewable energy groups and businesses are beginning to speak out against the actions they say could bring renewable energy projects in the state to a grinding halt.

“It would be a big hit on solar,” said Andrew Kellar, who runs New Hampshire Solar Garden, a business that helps towns and other groups install solar panel arrays. “It would kill the industry instantly if they took that money away.”

At issue is the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, passed by the Legislature in 2007 as a way to reduce the state’s use of fossil fuels. The RPS requires utilities to purchase credits from four different classes of renewable power sources including solar, wind and biomass. If utilities don’t meet the standard they pay into a renewable energy fund, that money is then invested by the state Public Utilities Commission into renewable projects.

Over the years, the renewable energy fund has brought in millions of dollars, which has been paid out to projects ranging from residential solar installations to a $1 million grant to help finance the Jericho Wind project in Berlin.

But the fund has also caught the eye of lawmakers, who in the past have siphoned off more than $16 million to help balance the state’s budget. Some are fearful of another raid as lawmakers put together the state’s next two-year budget plan.

Also this session, several bills proposed by lawmakers aim to address rising electric costs and would divert the fund money away from renewable projects and into other areas. One bill, filed by Republican House Majority Leader Jack Flanagan, plans to group all four renewable energy classes into one and route half the money accumulated by the renewable energy fund back to ratepayers. “What this bill tries to do is bring RPS into a more balanced approach,” Flanagan said at a hearing on the bill last month.

A separate bill proposed by Republican Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley would use the renewable energy fund to pay for low-income home weatherization improvements for the next three years. The bill also calls for money to be sent back to ratepayers for a period of three years if electric rates increase more than 25 percent. “I think we can take a little bit of a time-out for some small amount of rate relief,” he said. A third bill would repeal the fund and RPS altogether.

But renewable energy activists have spoken out against that type of legislation, arguing that the program’s benefits are huge and that sending the fund’s balance to ratepayers wouldn’t amount to much bill relief.

Since the renewable energy fund’s inception, it has received more than 2,000 applications from residents looking for monetary help to install solar or wood pellet boilers and has given out nearly $8.5 million to help finance residential projects.

The investment has led to savings of 54,300 megawatt-hours of electric usage per year – enough energy to power roughly 7,000 households – according to calculations from the PUC. It has helped displace roughly 20,000 tons of carbon emissions per year, according to the PUC.

Residents looking to install solar panels can get a rebate of up to $3,750, while commercial groups can get a rebate of up to $50,000.

Several municipalities in the Concord area are pursuing solar projects, and are hoping to get access to rebates from the fund. Warner is proposing to build two 100-kilowatt solar arrays to offset the electricity used by all town buildings and the wastewater treatment plant. It could save the town roughly $180,000 over 20 years, said Selectman Clyde Carson, who also represents the town in the state House. “Based on the numbers, we couldn’t make it with without the rebate,” he said.

The fund is helping to develop wood pellet boiler technology in the state, which can hook up to a fully automated central heating system and run on a thermostat, said Charles Niebling with Innovative Natural Resource Solutions.

Last year, the PUC doled out 55 rebates – totaling nearly $310,000 – to homeowners who installed wood pellet furnaces or boilers. The rebate comes out to 30 percent of the project’s cost, or $6,000, whichever is less. In that same time period, the commission granted six rebates for commercial wood pellet installations. Niebling recently sent a letter to those who have received the rebate, asking them to advocate for the program and protect the fund going forward.

“Now is not the time to pull the plug on this rebate,” he said. “In the future we have every hope and expectation this whole sector will thrive without need for any assistance or incentives, but we’re not there yet.”



(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)




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