Sununu proposes net metering plan; Democrats say it comes up short

  • New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu tells protestors he's close to a budget deal with Democratic leaders in the legislature after his appearance at the Upper Valley Senior Center in Lebanon, N.H., on Sept. 16, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Monitor staff
Published: 1/7/2020 4:26:29 PM

Seven months after he vetoed a Democratic effort to expand “net metering” in New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu has proposed a scaled-back approach to green energy growth.

The governor announced his support for a group of legislation that would provide modest increases to the state’s cap on net metering for residents and businesses that generate renewable power.

But one of the bills endorsed would slash the rates at which participants of larger-scale projects would be repaid – by more than half.

That and other limitations drew quick criticism from environmental activists Monday, who distanced themselves from the bills.

“We hear all the time that government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers,” said Madeleine Mineau, executive director of Clean Energy N.H. “So we would prefer expanded net metering to be fair and equal across customers of every size. ”

Announced as a responsible approach to building up net metering, the package includes a trio of bills co-authored by the Republican governor’s office that would allow those generating power to increase the amount of energy they get compensated for and would let cities and towns take part.

“These clean energy bills are a homerun for ratepayers and the environment,” said Sununu, saying the bills were “ushering in a new clean energy era in New Hampshire.”

The governor’s preferred changes would raise the limit of renewable energy that owners of solar panels and other energy sources can use to offset their electric bills.

Presently, “customer-generators” may use the electricity generated at their homes or businesses to offset up to one megawatt of energy from their energy bill using default energy rates; Sununu’s bill would expand that to generators above 1 megawatt per hour, but cap sales at 125% of the average usage rate.

But the bills also include significant limitations.

One of the bills, House Bill 1481, would more than halve the per-Kilowatt-hour rate at which larger customer-generators could be credited by utility companies, reducing the financial benefit for those participating.

Under that proposed legislation, instead of the current 8- or 9-cent payout per-Kilowatt-hour for generators smaller than one megawatt, generators over one megawatt would receive a payout around four cents. That would limit the benefits of expanded net metering to larger generators with economies of scale.

Democrats called the bills half-measures and called on Sununu to support their more ambitious plans.

“It’s disappointing that after vetoing bipartisan legislation, Governor Sununu chose to focus on partisan measures rather than reaching across the aisle to find real solutions,” said Sen. Dan Feltes, a Democrat from Concord who is running for governor.

Democrats and some Republicans have been pressing for years to increase the net-metering cap to five megawatts, arguing that doing so would encourage greater use of solar and hydropower and keep costs down for businesses and cities looking to use it.

But Sununu has frequently opposed those efforts, maintaining that such an increase would amount to a subsidy for solar panels companies from utilities, and contending that it could lead to costs being pushed onto ratepayers.

Instead, Sununu said his scaled-down proposals would allow for net metering expansion within more responsible limits.

“These bills protect ratepayers and remove government barriers instead of enacting new ones – something past clean energy-related legislation has not been able to accomplish.,” the governor said.

Sununu’s preferred bill, House Bill 1481, would let those who produce more than 1 megawatt of renewable energy to sell back up to 125% of the energy they used to the utility companies.

That’s less than the bill Sununu vetoed, which allowed businesses to use generators up to five megawatts in size for net metering – with any energy not used by the consumer eligible to be sold back to the grid.

But to some advocates of clean energy, the issue with the bill is not the cap but the payout.

Under current law, those benefiting from net metering receive the “default service rate” – an amount varying and set by the Public Utilities Commission at auction. That rate is presently 8 to 9 cents.

The new system would apply the “avoided cost credit” for generators over 1 megawatt. That credit fluctuates between 3.9 and 4.3 cents.

It’s a payout reduction of more than half. And it would mean that those trying to take advantage of the increase would need to generate at least 2.5 megawatts to make as much as those under the current cap before it became profitable.

To advocates of the bill, that low payout is by design. The governor’s office has long warned about the possibility of utility companies cost-shifting onto ratepayers if net metering is expanded too quickly, something that the bills’ supporters said could be contained by lower payout rates.

Keeping the rates low for larger producers would help mitigate that cost-shifting risk, the bill’s supporters added – and the rates could be raised later by the PUC.

To Mineau those low rates are a dealbreaker and would disincentivize medium-size clean energy generators.

The trio of bills also included House Bill 1402. That bill would allow municipalities to participate in larger-scale net metering – long a goal for some cities – by carving out an exception for them in statute.

The change would allow cities to apply to the Public Utilities Commission, provided they demonstrated that they were providing net metering to people within their districts.

The bills added a complicating wrinkle to the efforts made by Democrats, who favor lifting the cap on net metering for all parties. Two similar bills – SB 13 and SB 159 – are set to come up for a floor vote in the Senate on Wednesday.

“While we welcome movement from the governor on net metering, the most important thing to do is to raise the cap on net metering as proposed in HB 365 and SB 13, a concept that was endorsed by municipalities across the state and had bipartisan support in the Legislature,” Sen. David Watters, a Dover Democrat, said in a statement.

The Republican-backed bills could peel off some of the bipartisan support last year for more substantial increases to the net metering program. For her part, Mineau stayed optimistic.

“We’re hoping that this press release is indicating the governor’s interest in finding a solution … and that we can work in this starting place with these bills and find a compromise that would genuinely work for everyone,” Mineau said.

Still, to co-sponsors of the bills, they strike the right balance between clean energy expansion and maintaining existing infrastructure.

Rep. Tim Lang, a Sanbornton Republican, called the bills “a huge opportunity for New Hampshire.”

“With Governor Sununu’s leadership we have found creative ways to break the net metering deadlock and unleash more private investment in the state, all without adversely impacting ratepayers,” he said.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, at (603) 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)




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