Opinion: The impact of HB 281 for utility ratepayers

By TERRY CRONIN

Published: 05-27-2023 6:00 AM

Terry Cronin lives in Hopkinton.

When I first heard of the proposed repeal of the law that requires utilities to integrate their resource planning to protect consumers from unnecessary risks and costs of infrastructure projects, it struck me as an odd, alarming antic.

It’s House Bill 281.

What’s alarming about the repeal is that we will lose the upfront planning process that yields the foresight for the best and most cost-effective utility options for both gas and electric service customers.

What is odd is that while Governor Chris Sununu made clear his favor for repealing the Least Cost Integrated Resource Plan (LCIRP) statute, no utility or Business and Industry Association (BIA) representative testified in support at the recent Senate hearing on it.

Are New Hampshire’s incumbent investor-owned utilities (IOUs) and the BIA now in silent assent to state-sanctioned unfair monopoly business practices? Why hide now? The state’s dearth of behind-the-meter solar energy, net metering, time-of-use pricing, and energy efficiency that guarantee residential customer savings opportunities stand as proof for the last ten years of their entrenched, open support of similar unfair monopoly practices.

We first need to focus our energy on what guarantees residential customer savings, including the resources we integrate for least cost planning in existing law. After that, we can consider the need for renewable energy transmission infrastructure projects. But only if they include a fair bidding process.

The New Hampshire Bulletin published a report about it on May 10 titled, “Combining five bills, energy omnibus amendment gets Senate airing.” Of the bills, reporter Hadley Barndollar tells us, “…speakers overwhelmingly opposed an included attempt to repeal a mandate that utilities submit least cost integrated resource plans to the Public Utilities Commission.” The Senate omnibus amendment included HB 281, the least cost plan repeal.

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Republican Rep. Michael Vose, chair of the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee testified first at the hearing. He lectured the committee that the need for least cost resource plans ended when utilities divested their power plants. He then assured the members that transmission and distribution projects didn’t need plans, and that retrospective PUC reviews were equivalent to prospective utility resource planning.

Vose told them the planning was “redundant” and that repeal of the statute allows us to “…reduce government regulation.”

But Rep. Vose overlooked the fact that utilities distributing natural gas to homes never had generation assets to divest.

Meredith Hatfield of the Nature Conservancy, a renowned state energy policy advisor and former consumer advocate, gave opening testimony about “the waiver provision” in the LCIRP law. She said, “It’s a nice way for a utility to be able to say, this doesn’t apply to us, or it’s not appropriate at this time.” Utilities can request a waiver from the commission for any of the provisions.

But that wasn’t enough. The committee and the full Senate voted for repeal, and now HB 281 goes back to the House.

Nick Krakoff, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, testified to the committee about the LCIRP saying, “It’s still highly relevant to the siting of discrete resources, battery storage, distributed energy resources, for energy diversity benefits, to protect the environment and natural resources.”

He also discussed a recent LCIRP case in which he intervened that proves the folly of the statute’s repeal.

Liberty Utilities proposed the Granite Bridge Project to site a $450 million gas pipeline and liquefied natural gas storage tank. Consumer Advocate Donald Kreis described the project in his InDepthNH.org column almost three years ago as “… simply too expensive, and too reliant on dreamy estimates of future customer growth, projected too many years into the future.”

Mr. Krakoff said “… because of the LCIRP statutes, that HB 281 would repeal, Liberty eventually abandoned Granite Bridge in favor of a project that would cost only $45 million.”

That is ten times less expensive.

Now, if the state repeals least cost resource planning, how many utility projects based on “dreamy estimates” will turn into ratepayer nightmares?

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