As Concord Steam shutdown nears, details debated on fund to help customers 

  • A truck filled with wood chips pulls up to the Concord Steam plant off of Pleasant Street in Concord.

Monitor staff
Published: 2/10/2017 11:02:59 PM

With the shutdown of Concord Steam less than four months away, the details of a million-dollar fund to help downtown building owners move away from steam heat remain up in the air – including whether it will even exist.

A day-long hearing was held Friday to hash out questions about the fund, which is supported by virtually all the parties involved in the regulatory debate over the highly unusual closure of a public utility.

The fund must be approved by the Public Utilities Commission, which oversees regulated entities like Concord Steam. Some PUC members raised questions about the proposal Friday.

Concord Steam will shut May 31 after years of technical and financial struggles. Liberty Utilities is buying its customer list and easements for $1.9 million, but not its power plant or underground steam pipes.

The news of the pending end of Concord Steam after eight decades of service was announced last July, giving roughly 85 owners of about 180 buildings in Concord – including a number of non-profits – a year to find and install alternate systems. These customers include the state and the city, each of which has budgeted millions to do the work.

Under the recently amended plan, many Concord Steam customers would be eligible to get grants of up to $50,000 for residential or non-profit customers and up to $75,000 for businesses including landlords, until the $1 million fund was spent.

The money would come from Liberty Utilities, but because this fund would be considered an asset like machinery, Liberty would recoup the post plus a 10.15 percent rate of return via charges to all commercial and industrial customers. That aspect of the proposal raised some concern Friday.

“Treating this (money) as a regulated asset is a little odd,” said Martin Honigberg, chairman of the PUC. “It is kind of a high return.”

Questions have also been raised whether it is fair or legal for business customers of Liberty Utilities throughout New Hampshire to pay extra to help a relatively small number of new customers located only in Concord.

Under the proposal, distribution of the grants would be overseen by the Capital Regional Development Council. The money is designed to help partly defray costs for those who have to pay thousands of dollars to switch boilers and connections in a transition from steam to gas-fired heat and hot water.

“It’s not going to be a no-cost conversion for them,” said Sen. Dan Feltes, a Concord Democrat, who has been a leading proponent of the fund.

“Millions of dollars in conversion costs are hitting downtown Concord right now. This is going to provide some relief,” Feltes argued. “(Customers) are not the ones that created a failed utility. Concord Steam is doing OK, the principals of Concord Steam are doing OK. The business owners and the non-profits are incurring expenses as a result of a failed utility. It’s out of their hands – I believe they deserve some relief.”

In cross-examination of Feltes, PUC Commissioner Katherine Bailey questioned whether grants were the right way to go, especially for business owners who already have access to financing for upgrades.

“It’s a business expense. … For somebody who can get a loan, I don’t understand why we would have … other businesses help pay back that expense,” she said. 

Because gas-fired heat will be much less expensive than Concord Steam charges, some customers could recoup the cost of converting systems through savings on their bills in only a few years, according to data submitted to the PUC.

Friday’s hearing was attended by representatives of a number of affected downtown building owners, including two churches, non-profits such as the YMCA and the Brain Injury Association, several landlords and the city of Concord. 

The PUC is expected to rule on the fund soon.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)




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