My Turn: State’s energy puzzle not hard to piece together

For the Monitor
Thursday, March 24, 2016
In an opinion piece last month headlined “Seeking a balance of power in the energy revolution” (Monitor Forum, Feb. 11), Rep. Bill Baber unwittingly revealed how utility interests co-opted the public interest in New Hampshire’s energy policy.

First, Baber extols the promise of renewables and energy efficiencies for their economic and environmental benefits. They will deliver diverse, affordable energy with new, good-paying jobs that keep investments local. Further, our state’s energy strategy already calls for these choices.

So what’s the problem, he asks?

Baber implies financial interests. It’s the plague of the state’s public utility lobbyists. Yet at the same time he sees them as good at their jobs, bright and well informed. Still, he complains about pending large-scale energy projects that may have the opposite effect of the Legislature’s intended strategy. You should worry assured they will.

Consider them.

There’s the Northeast Energy Direct gas pipeline – Kinder Morgan’s proposal – that the PUC staff consultant testified would leave substantial excess capacity over the life of the contract.

Then there’s the Access Northeast project where Eversource wants the Public Utilities Commission to approve its buying into the Algonquin gas pipeline. The costs to New Hampshire ratepayers, built into electricity rates on a 20-year contract, will run $50 million per year. But the company doesn’t want the PUC to disclose its prices, terms or valuations to the public.

They’ve got big ones.

Then there’s the Northern Pass transmission project. This Hydro-Quebec/Eversource deal will subject a corridor of New Hampshire’s landscape to new, massive, ugly transmission towers. The greatest risk from this elective proposal to sell “affordable” electricity into the wholesale New England market comes from its reliance on an unfinished hydroelectric project.

In 2014, Benjamin Sovacool and his colleagues at the Vermont Law School published, “An international comparative assessment of construction cost overruns for electricity infrastructure.” They say across their entire sample – for costs and time – hydroelectric projects “are those most exposed to persistent, extreme overruns.” This study repudiates Northern Pass’s sole selling point – decreased energy costs.

Minimizing financial risk associated with costly, excess infrastructure and transmission capacity gave impetus to the state’s energy strategy. Moreover, long-term fossil fuel contracts run counter to its environmental and public health goals. Every one of these three projects guarantees a significant lag on the state’s energy revolution.

But according to Baber, a dearth of information leaves him unable to counter utility lobbyists’ “substantive arguments” he cannot ignore. So with the state under demands to approve three big, antiquated utility projects, he wonders if “viable alternatives” will come soon enough.

I’m sorry, but this is either obtuse or disingenuous. No one could draw that conclusion without good reason.

No mystery looms over why we have yet to decouple electricity distribution rates from sales volumes, as the rest of New England and most other states. So when will the governor and Legislature enact legislation that sets specific energy savings targets, establishes a timeline for them, and assign the proper authority and oversight to ensure that they’re met?

Before we spend another dime on over-market-priced electricity or obsolete fossil fuel projects, we must insist on a rational energy efficiency resource standard.

Donald Kreis – the new consumer advocate – sets a modest target at 3.1 percent of sales for electric utilities for 2017 through 2019. It’s little enough. How else can we begin to learn how much infrastructure we actually need? By continuing to listen to utility and labor lobbyists?

Exposing elected officials who succumb to public utility influence peddling and lavish inaugural balls will prove New Hampshire’s only way to a balance of power in the energy revolution.

Nowhere in our state’s economy can you find laws written specifically to privatize profit and socialize loss more evident than in the utility sector. It’s why Eversource could recover $400 million on the abject failure of the Merrimack Station scrubber project. Just 2½ years after its completion, the PUC-commissioned LaCapra report showed the whole kit and caboodle near worthless.

Prepare for more waste and stranded costs at the bottom of your electric bill. Debt and bad business decisions play deep into how utilities make money. And it will never end without adequate distributed energy resources.

(Terry Cronin lives in Hopkinton.)

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