Energy becomes lightning rod in race for N.H. governor

  • Bennington forestry company D.H. Hardwick makes more than 40 percent of its revenue from biomass woodchips.

  • A trailer carrying between 25 and 30 tons of wood chips from a logging job, enough for about one hour of electric generation, is emptied at the Springfield Power biomass plant in Springfield earlier this month. The facility is one of the six independent biomass plants that have been impacted by Sununu's veto of a bill that would have required utilities to purchase a portion of their electricity from the biomass plants. Valley News file

For the Monitor
Published: 8/29/2018 4:40:45 PM

With New Hampshire paying some of the highest energy bills in the country, it’s no surprise that the issue’s front and center in this year’s campaign for governor.

The two Democratic challengers in the race – former state Sen. Molly Kelly of Harrisville and former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand – have highlighted energy relentlessly this summer as they’ve touted their commitment to renewables and slammed Republican Gov. Chris Sununu on the issue. Sununu has spotlighted that he’s fighting to reduce energy prices for ratepayers.

A new TV ad by Kelly that hit the airwaves on Wednesday targeted Sununu for his controversial vetoes last month of two bills that would have aided the renewable energy industry.

“We’re getting slammed with higher electric bills,” Kelly said at the top of the commercial, as she spotlighted the governor’s vetoes and more than $50,000 in contributions Sununu’s received over the past several years from Eversource – the state’s largest utility.

“Eversource is making huge profits,” Kelly argued in the commercial. “The governor? He collected more than $50,000 from Eversource and vetoed two renewable energy bills.”

One of the two bills the governor vetoed would have required Eversource and other utilities to buy power from independent biomass power plants. The other measure would have expanded net metering – which provides small generators credits for the electricity they send to the power grid.

In Sununu’s first ad of his re-election campaign –a digital spot released earlier this month titled “axing the biomass tax” – he said his goal was to protect ratepayers.

“I will never stop fighting for New Hampshire’s ratepayers – from individual families to the small businesses that power our economy – because it is simply the right thing to do,” he said.

The narrator in the commercial added that “when foreign and out-of-state biomass companies asked for $30 million a year from New Hampshire taxpayers to bail them out, Gov. Sununu said no.”

After Sununu’s veto, three biomass plants announced plans to close or shutter operations, which has sent ripples through the timber industry in the North Country.

As for the net metering bill, Sununu said last month that he vetoed the measure because it amounted to “a handout to large-scale energy developers.”

In her commercial, Kelly touted that she “led the fight to expand clean energy and create jobs.”

Earlier this month, all but two of the state’s 13 mayors agreed to back a letter asking legislators to override Gov. Chris Sununu’s vetoes of two energy-related bills on Sept. 13, saying the vetoes hurt their communities.

“We believe strongly that clean and local renewable energy and greater efficiency in how we use all energy will be vitally important to our cities’ future economic vitality and environmental quality,” the letter states.

While Kelly and Marchand have repeatedly criticized Sununu’s contributions from Eversource, the Democratic contenders – who face off in the Sept. 11 primary – have traded fire this summer over past energy contributions that both candidates accepted.

For his part, Sununu made energy a major issue in his successful 2016 run for governor, Sununu highlighted his civil and environmental engineering degree from MIT, his years after college working as an environmental engineer cleaning up waste sites, and his more recent tenure running the Waterville Valley ski resort. He also spotlighted his strong support for Eversource’s controversial and now stalled Northern Pass hydro-electric transmission line proposal.

Since taking over in the Corner Office at the beginning of last year, Sununu’s come under attack for his stance on climate change. Democrats slammed him for refusing to join at least 20 other states in pledging to uphold the Paris climate agreement following President Donald Trump’s controversial decision in the spring of 2017 to back the United States out of the accord.

“Not at this time, especially when we do not yet know its impact on our economy and environment,” Sununu said at the time.

Sununu’s comments to NHPR last summer also grabbed attention. Asked if him believed that carbon emissions were the leading cause of climate change, the governor answered, “I don’t know for sure.”

And this spring, critics pointed to Sununu’s “state energy strategy,” which emphasized more reliance on nuclear and gas over renewable energy.

While the issue’s in the spotlight on the campaign trail, it will also be front in center in Concord early next month, when lawmakers return to the State House to try and override the governor’s vetoes of the renewable energy bills.

That showdown will come less than two months before election day, as New Hampshire’s first GOP governor in a dozen years tries to win a second straight two-year term steering the state.

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