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Community power plan gets a charge

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/18/2021 9:36:04 PM
Modified: 8/18/2021 9:36:09 PM

LEBANON — New Hampshire towns are making strides toward implementing community power programs, which supporters hope will give residents and small businesses the opportunity to purchase power from renewable sources at a competitive price.

On Wednesday evening, the Plainfield Selectboard voted unanimously to join the Community Power Coalition of New Hampshire, a nonprofit designed to aggregate the buying power of multiple municipalities and isolate each town from legal and financial liability.

Lebanon already voted to enter a joint powers agreement with the coalition in February and has progressed to the next step: an energy aggregation plan. On Wednesday evening, Lebanon held a public hearing on the plan. The City Council is scheduled to vote on whether to adopt the plan in September.

Under a community power model, a municipal government buys power on behalf of residents and businesses from alternative sources while utility companies continue to deliver electricity on their power lines. Utility payments, not taxes, would cover the operating costs.

Currently, residents and small businesses that buy their electricity from utilities have little control over where their energy is sourced. The model promises both lower rates and more renewable energy sources.

Plainfield’s meeting began with a brief presentation from the Energy Committee and opened for public comment afterward.

“Plainfield does not have the resources or knowledge to run a community power option alone,” said Evan Oxenham, the co-chair of the town’s energy committee as he made his case to the City Council.

Representatives from the energy committee emphasized that the Selectboard was voting on a “risk-free” step: Plainfield would not be under any obligation to implement a community power plan even if it joins the coalition.

“I’m skeptical that this could be a lower cost than what we currently have,” said Eric Sorensen, a Plainfield resident. “If it has better pricing, it becomes a no-brainer. If you don’t have that, it becomes a ecological sort of thing, an environmental thing, and then it’s a different decision.”

Oxenham responded that the coalition would bring municipalities together to have substantial purchasing power that would allow it to negotiate low rates. Currently, only large consumers have that advantage.

Furthermore, utility companies usually buy power from generators at set intervals every few months, whereas the coalition would constantly monitor prices to take advantage of fluctuations in the market.

The Selectboard voted unanimously to join a joint powers agreement with the coalition. The first 21 municipalities to sign on are guaranteed a seat on its board of directors. Plainfield became the 10th on Wednesday.

Lebanon, a leader in community power, was one of the first municipalities to vote to join the coalition. It has already developed a draft plan to implement community power, which will be Plainfield’s next step.

On Wednesday evening, members of the Lebanon Energy Advisory Committee presented the plan and then residents and city officials had an opportunity to ask questions.

Meghan Butts, a member of the committee, said that community power would bring cheaper rates, access to local renewable energy and support for electric vehicles, solar energy and storage. She emphasized that Liberty Utilities would continue to deliver “reliable power to our doors.”

“Community power offers accelerated, cost-effective integration of renewable resources into the grid to better meet energy and climate action goals,” said Clifton Below, the chair of the Lebanon Energy Advisory Committee in an interview.

Lebanon’s electric aggregation plan details big-picture goals as well as fine-grained operating procedures. Although the presenters said that the plan “assumes” that Lebanon Community Power will move forward, adopting the plan does not commit the city to implementing it.

The presenters made sure to address concerns about the cost community power may put on individuals.

“Lebanon Community Power will only launch if it can initially offer a rate lower than the default energy service rate offered by Liberty Utilities,” said Butts, who was quoting directly from the plan.

The plan offers a tiered model: Customers could pay utility rates below the current default option from Liberty Utilities, or they could choose to pay higher rates for energy sourced from more renewable energy generators.

If the plan were implemented, Lebanon Community Power would become the “default electricity supplier,” but individual customers would retain the right to opt out.

Below said that the goal is to roll out the community power model by the second quarter of 2022. Before it gets off the ground, Lebanon needs to work with utilities, the Department of Energy and the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission to adopt rules for community power.

The rules themselves still need to be finalized, which could potentially delay the launch dates of electric aggregation plans across the state. The coalition also still needs to be established as a legal entity and will eventually have to engage energy vendors through an open bid process.

Lebanon will not be under any financial obligations until it enters a “cost-sharing agreement” with the coalition. Below said that the public will have opportunities to comment further over the next several months.

“It’s very, very exciting this is taking place,” said Pat Button, a Lebanon resident who attended the meeting virtually. She asked whether sourcing from renewable energy sources would be a priority, which Below confirmed.

Plainfield and Lebanon are not the only towns in the Upper Valley that are interested in working toward community power.

In Enfield, Kim Quirk, who chairs the Community Power Committee, said that the town may agree to enter a joint powers agreement and join the community power coalition at the Selectboard meeting this September. The agreement would not commit Enfield to a community power option but would give the municipality more say in the coalition’s policies.

So far, she said feedback from the Selectboard has been “positive,” although the the agreement is still under legal review.

“I would like our town to have a say in what we use for our energy source,” she said. “My personal goal is to help reduce fossil fuels and emissions. We’re being constrained and not allowed to buy the less-expensive wind and solar energy.”

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at or 603-727- 3242.

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