4 Upper Valley communities poised for power-pooling plan


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-17-2023 12:51 PM

LEBANON — Four Upper Valley communities are poised to be in the initial group of local governments receiving their electricity from the Community Power Coalition of New Hampshire.

The nonprofit is set up in a way to pool the buying power of municipalities while insulating them from financial risk. It’s scheduled to launch in Lebanon, Hanover, Enfield and Plainfield in April or May.

Community power aggregation, as it’s known, was approved by the New Hampshire Legislature in 2019 and allows cities, towns and counties to provide what supporters say will be less expensive and more reliable electricity to their residents and businesses.

Details of the service will be outlined to utility customers in mailers and a series of public meetings over the next few months.

Unless they choose to opt out, residents and businesses on a utility default service will automatically be bumped into the program.

Conventional utilities, such as Liberty, which serves Lebanon, will still “deliver” the power on the distribution grid they operate, but the Lebanon-based Community Power Coalition is responsible for procuring it.

Supporters hope that most customers will elect to stick with the nonprofit. Community power aggregations are intended to keep rates down, and compared with default utilities customers should expect 5% savings that can be maintained “in perpetuity,” Lebanon City Councilor Clifton Below said.

Below, chairman of the CPCNH governing board, was among the early champions of the community power model in the state.

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“We’re able to perform better than the utility default service, and there may be times that we go above, but on average we want to beat that price,” Below said at a Lebanon City Council meeting earlier this month. “Nobody wants to launch unless we’re offering some sort of meaningful savings, and we won’t launch unless we’re able to do that.”

Grouping up with other communities gives towns and cities purchasing power that they wouldn’t have if they were acting alone and opens the door to competitive energy markets, Below said.

Community Power Coalition offers four rate products at an ascending level of renewability — and price. But the more renewable (and expensive) products would still be cheaper routes to clean energy than most current options. Smaller towns like Plainfield, which is aiming to use 100% renewable power by 2030, hope that this can help them reach their energy targets.

“By getting together as a large community, you have much more purchasing power, and you can band together and potentially build projects that could benefit more than one town,” said Evan Oxenham, co-chair of Plainfield’s Energy Committee. “Joining those bigger towns gives us more muscle to achieve our goals.”

Lebanon and Hanover are set to proceed with rollout this spring. Enfield and Plainfield are still in the process of adopting Community Power Coalition’s cost-sharing agreement, which has to be approved by the towns’ selectboards.

Learning about the state’s energy industry through the community power adoption process has been like getting a “master’s degree in power supply,” Oxenham said.

“We’re starting to demystify how the power sector works and probably more so than some are interested in knowing,” Below said with a laugh, in a nod to the dense explanatory material the City Council was presented with at the meeting.

That “demystification,” however strenuous, is in hopes that transparency leads to customers making better-informed choices about how they source their energy.

The 1996 deregulation of the energy sector in New Hampshire left customers at the mercy of large private utilities, but community power aggregations place control of the energy supply back into the hands of municipalities, Below said.

“It’s a way to pool our resources and efforts,” he added. “The Upper Valley is a real core of this.”

Bringing community power to New Hampshire has been no small effort, involving legislative jockeying, vetting from the state’s Public Utilities Commission and the formation of the Community Power Coalition. The nonprofit raised roughly $140,000 in grants and gifts and has also secured $750,000 in startup money and $8.5 million in credit support from lenders.

A pillar of the plan, and a requirement under state law, is the insulation of municipalities from liability or financial exposure. The hope is that taxpayers will be protected if anything goes awry, as all of the costs of the program are intended to be recovered by rate payments.

“Energy supply is inherently a risky business, because we’re in a marketplace that’s dynamic and changing all the time,” Below said. “So we want to develop a portfolio of power supply that we’re constantly monitoring and adjusting our position and managing risk for.”

Ascend Analytics, a Boulder, Colo.-based firm with a history of risk management for community power aggregations, will monitor regional and state markets for Community Power Coalition.

The localized decision-making power inherent to the program has been celebrated by legislators on both sides of the aisle, said Kim Quirk, a member of the Energy Committee in Enfield and treasurer of Community Power Coalition.

“Our Legislature promoted this as — and it is — a way for the community to take control of their energy source,” Quirk said. “And that’s a very positive thing in New Hampshire. It doesn’t say that all the energy has to be solar, which would be more controversial. It says instead that we want to have control over our energy so we can decide for ourselves.”

People are too often priced out of pursuing renewable energy options, like rooftop solar, Quirk said. “But this is a route that we’re pursuing in Enfield that’s equitable and works across the board. Whether you’re wealthy or you don’t have a lot of money, everyone will get the benefits of community power.”

Membership has doubled over the past year, and after launch the Community Power Coalition would be poised to become the second-largest energy provider in New Hampshire, Below said.

Representing over 20% of the state’s population, it could serve more customers than the New Hampshire Electric Co-op, Liberty or Unitil in just over a year’s time.

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

CORRECTION: Residents and businesses in towns that are set to adopt a community power model will be transferred to community power as their supplier, unless they opt-out, only if they are currently on a default energy service. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated who would be affected by the adoption. Additionally, the Community Power Coalition of New Hampshire is primarily based in Lebanon. The previous version of this story included an incorrect location for the nonprofit’s headquarters.