My Turn: Clean energy for the common good

For the Monitor
Published: 5/8/2017 12:05:04 AM

I never thought much about fuel growing up in rural New Hampshire. Summer air conditioning was out of the question, on account of the pond nearby. Winter chores included chopping kindling and hauling cords of firewood to keep the wood stove crackling – a warm welcome after a cold day skiing on nearby Temple Mountain.

Every now and then, the propane truck would come around and fill the big green tank outside our home to keep to the furnace burning on the coldest winter nights. But with the thermostat set at 55 degrees most of the time, and our trusty wood stove, we didn’t pay for much. Even the gas we burned driving 20 miles to and from Market Basket in our aging minivan was manageable at 89 cents a gallon.

That was way back when.

Nowadays, we Granite Staters send over $6 billion of our hard-earned money out of state to heat our homes, fill our gas tanks and power our way of life. We buy tankers worth of oil from the Gulf of Mexico and the Middle East, trainloads of coal from Colombia and the Rocky Mountains, pipelines full of natural gas from Canada and Appalachia.

These and other imported energy sources now account for over 85 percent of our state’s power generation. At $11,500 a year for the average family, they certainly don’t come cheap.

Which is why Senate Bill 129 – a bipartisan plan to reduce our state’s dependence on imported fossil fuels and accelerate the transition to inexpensive and locally sourced renewables – might just be the most important piece of legislation you’ve never heard of in Concord this year.

But first, consider the cost of imported fossil fuels to our economy, our environment and our way of life.

In recent years, Granite State families and businesses have had to contend with some of the highest electricity rates in the nation. With current prices hovering around 60 percent above the national average, New Hampshire’s reliance on imported fossil fuels hampers growth and leaves us at the mercy of price spikes and geopolitical uncertainty abroad. It is no surprise that certain businesses looking to expand or set up shop in our state have had to think twice.

And we don’t just pay at the pump or on our monthly utility bill. Poor air quality as a result of burning fossil fuels now causes more than 100 premature deaths and countless unnecessary hospitalizations for respiratory ailments every year, at a public cost of more than $1 billion to New Hampshire.

Longstanding industries have suffered, as CO2 emissions from fossil fuels cause rising temperatures and declining snowfalls of 10 to 60 inches over the last 30 years. Already, numerous snowmobile routes and ski areas like Temple Mountain have disappeared from southern New Hampshire, costing local jobs and harming the state’s multi-billion-dollar winter tourism industry. Maple sugaring has also been affected, as heat-stressed maple trees produce less sap and the center of maple production moves north into Canada. Even fall foliage, a billion-dollar boon to New Hampshire’s economy, is expected to decline as leaves change from orange and red to brown thanks to climate change.

Most disconcerting of all, if the current rate of fossil fuel emissions continues unabated, average temperatures in New Hampshire are projected to rise by 9.5 degrees by century’s end, costing our state billions of dollars as sea levels rise and residents everywhere are subjected to floods, droughts and other extreme weather events. Not to mention the effects on wildlife like our iconic moose, whose numbers have plunged due to tick infestations brought on by climate change.

As the state of New Hampshire’s Climate Action Plan concludes, “the scientific literature makes it clear that we must address climate change now because of the potentially catastrophic impacts that may occur if we delay action.”

Fortunately, the state also finds that “we can derive substantial economic and environmental benefits by developing and using homegrown, renewable energy sources (that) will create many new jobs and economic opportunities for New Hampshire’s people and businesses.”

That’s where SB 129 comes in.

Recognizing the economic and environmental imperative of replacing fossils fuels with clean renewable energy, SB 129 would update New Hampshire’s Renewable Portfolio Standard by increasing the utility solar requirement from 0.3 percent to 1 percent of electricity generation, increasing biomass production and expanding solar access for low-income residents. It is a modest but much-needed step, as the state Senate affirmed when it approved SB 129 with strong bipartisan support.

Nevertheless, House leaders seem intent on stripping the solar provisions out of SB 129 and forfeiting the best chance we have of increasing the 1,200 jobs in the fledgling solar industry. Their amendment comes in spite of the fact that solar – now the cheapest source of electricity on earth – has been found to save all ratepayers money by providing maximum energy at periods of peak demand, without the negative externalities that accompany fossil fuels.

As I think of my two young children who will never ski Temple Mountain or buy gas for 89 cents a gallon, it’s easy to look back with longing on times gone by. Yet I believe that with a little common sense, and a lot of constituent calls to Concord, a brighter energy future awaits.

(Dan Weeks of Nashua is a director at ReVision Energy, a local B Corp working to accelerate the clean energy transition in New Hampshire.)

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