Column: Community power promises lower rates, greener electricity

For the Valley News
Published: 7/11/2021 10:00:03 PM
Modified: 7/11/2021 10:00:05 PM

In the years since 1996, when the New Hampshire Legislature opened up the purchase of electric power to free market competition, I received lots of calls at the Lebanon Housing Authority from commercial brokers offering to save us money by supplying us power. Even though our electric bill was substantial, I couldn’t face having to constantly check — and repeatedly negotiate over — electric rates.

In the intervening years, most big businesses in Lebanon have saved money by utilizing competitive suppliers of power, while some 6,000 residents and 1,000 small businesses have simply stayed with buying power from Liberty Utilities at whatever default rate it offers.

Now comes a Lebanon Community Power plan to offer little customers the market advantages that big customers have enjoyed. Rather than each of us individually having to shop for our electricity, Lebanon Community Power will “aggregate” the default utility customers in Lebanon and find lower rates and greener power for us all. A sort of buying club.

This idea is so attractive that five municipalities in New Hampshire besides Lebanon (Hanover, Nashua, Harrisville, Rye and Exeter) have or are in the process of adopting their own community power plans, and 20 more are investigating it.

And then comes the really innovative part: These municipalities intend to band their programs together into the Community Power Coalition of New Hampshire.

Community power won’t just be some employee in each town trying to find a broker with the best deal in a single, fixed-term power supply contract. The coalition will have buying power bigger than any one municipality — bigger, even, than the whole Liberty Utilities default service load.

For our benefit, it will be able to utilize professional power procurement consultants to build a sophisticated, risk-managed portfolio of power sources, including straight wholesale power, tiered short-term contracts and contracts with local and regional renewable power generators. As someone remarked: “This plan is really hot, I mean cool!”

The coalition is constructed to insulate Lebanon and other member community power programs from risk due to fluctuating prices. The cost of its services, including administration and customer service, will be folded into the rates that individual customers pay, so that there will be (by law) no cost to taxpayers except for incidental costs of start-up, like required hearings.

The coalition will be able to provide benefits that utilities either cannot or will not provide, such as supporting the development of regional renewable generation and storage capacity for a greener and more resilient grid.

It can support the equivalent of net metering. It can offer optional grid modernization pilot programs to study the efficacy of time-varying rates in saving even more money for customers willing to shift some of their usage to off-peak times, and (this is the one I am most excited about), possibly offer innovative programs to encourage weatherization.

There will be an introductory hearing on Thursday, at 7 p.m., and another on Aug. 18, at the new City Council chambers, in person or at, preparatory to the City Council considering whether to adopt the Lebanon Community Power plan.

Jonathan Chaffee, of West Lebanon, is a member of Lebanon Energy Advisory Committee.

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