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Our Turn: State needs a responsive, innovative energy department

Published: 10/30/2016 3:15:37 AM

During this election season, our fellow Granite Staters are making clear that we want strong leadership from our elected officials, including our new governor.

Our next governor will inherit many challenges and opportunities, including how best to preserve and build upon the natural, historical and cultural treasures that contribute to New Hampshire’s high quality of life.

New Hampshire residents value a clean environment and the ability to be energy independent by burning wood, installing solar panels and taking control of our energy usage to save money and reduce our impact.

And as we decide who will be the best steward of our state’s resources, we need to know where candidates vying to be our next governor – Colin Van Ostern and Chris Sununu – plan to modernize our state’s approach to energy to serve the state’s needs.

How our state, and our agencies, address and solve these challenges should be a focus of our new governor. Due to a legacy of leaving energy policy largely to our regulated utilities, New Hampshire currently has a structure that is ill-equipped to serve the complex energy needs of our state’s residents and businesses, and to harness the power of new technologies to reduce costs and give more control to consumers.

To ensure that we are focused on the future, and not stuck in the past, New Hampshire needs an independent energy agency that can help residents and businesses develop solutions that work for our state, with the authority to implement solutions.

How are we grappling with tough energy issues today? Frankly, it’s a challenge.

Today’s energy landscape is complex and often unfriendly to those who want to participate in important decisions. Many decisions are out of the state’s control, with federal and regional players who have control over major decisions impacting our state. But are we equipped to make the best decisions possible in those areas that we do control?

There are several state agencies that deal with, and influence, our state’s energy landscape, working to help our elected officials and the public understand the complex dimensions of these challenging issues. They are comprised of many qualified and thoughtful individuals – experts in their fields. Many are there beyond our biennial political cycles, with tremendous institutional and historical knowledge.

Like most Granite Staters, these public servants work hard and make the most of limited resources. But despite their hard work, we can’t afford to skimp when it comes to energy – or expect an outdated approach to serve us well in the future.

Let’s take inventory: We have an Office of Energy and Planning that gets zero state funding for its energy work, and has very limited staff. OEP also has no regulatory authority on energy issues.

We have a Public Utilities Commission that views itself as a regulatory body charged with adjudicating cases brought by monopoly utilities. (And also to manage important funds for energy efficiency and renewable energy. In fact, the PUC even uses an adjudicative-style process to administer the Renewable Energy Fund and to oversee the utility energy efficiency programs).

Despite tools that exist, the PUC engages in very little forward-looking planning – most likely due to deregulation of electricity, but, we would argue, to the detriment of the state’s interests.

We also have the Department of Environmental Services that works on clean air issues as they pertain to energy use but otherwise is focused on other extremely important issues, such as water quality. We have the Department of Administrative Services responsible for how state government, the largest energy customer in New Hampshire, uses – and saves – energy. And we have several other agencies that deal with energy in a variety of ways – in serving businesses (DRED), working with farmers (Agriculture) and regulating important safety aspects of energy (Department of Safety). These agencies are rarely engaged in questions related to energy planning despite their important role and insights.

We also have 424 legislators setting and implementing policy through laws and regulations.

This structure leaves us uncoordinated, lacking planning and analysis tools, and without an independent agency that can provide leadership on energy, backed by expertise and knowledge, and with the authority to implement. This is no fault of any individual, it is the result of decades of well-intentioned officials making choices that were sensible in 1949 or 1987, or even 2003. Given the enormity of our energy challenges and the significance they pose to our economy and environment, the need for a new approach to setting and implementing energy policy has never been greater.

Now is the time to consider new options.

We need only look to other New England states that have different ways of serving their residents’ needs in different models. Though they have different approaches, most of them have separated the judicial function of their PUCs from important efforts related to planning and analysis to help inform policy decisions.

We agree with this important separation, and believe that New Hampshire would be well served by adopting this model. In order to allow the PUC to focus on its important role in deciding contested cases, we believe that our state should also have an independent energy department that could plan, advise and implement policy based upon long-term objectives that transcend political terms.

A new energy department wouldn’t have to be expanded government. Rather, it is smart, consolidated governing that leverages a range of resources to provide the best service to Granite Staters. Former governor Craig Benson attempted changes in the executive branch that resulted in a combined Office of Energy and Planning, bringing energy and land use under one roof. Perhaps he didn’t go far enough.

One example of the state’s understanding of the broad reach of energy issues is the Site Evaluation Committee, which has members from a variety of agencies including DOT, DRED and Cultural Resources. But one major challenge for the SEC is that it is an ad hoc body that only convenes to respond to a proposal for an energy facility. It does not participate in any planning or analysis to consider our energy needs, where we might want to encourage the siting of energy facilities, or other important questions.

Having an SEC like this is sort of like a local town having a planning board that only permits projects but has no master plan or zoning regulations to guide development.

We need New Hampshire’s next chief executive to be strong on energy strategy, planning and policy – with an emphasis on taking advantage of every opportunity to make New Hampshire cleaner and more efficient, creating jobs here based on our natural resources economy.

We need him to help navigate a rapidly evolving utility industry that is a platform for delivering the energy that customers want, and to get our utilities to be partners in this endeavor.

Our next governor faces a range of important challenges, and we know that energy is only one of many. But capturing the enormous potential of our growing clean tech sector, creating jobs and keeping young people in the state, protecting our natural resources and preventing the outflow of dollars to energy sources far away should be a priority. And doing so in a way that engages our residents and businesses and respects their input is crucial.

We think that our current structure is not designed to serve us or help us prepare for the energy future. We hope that the next governor agrees, and that he is ready to roll up his sleeves and work with us and many others to create a responsive and innovative energy agency to help New Hampshire prepare for the 21st century. Our state deserves nothing less.

(Rep. Bill Baber is a Dover Democrat. Rick Russman, a Kingston Republican, is a former state senator.)

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