Hanover votes to join municipal energy coalition to cut electricity costs; Lebanon may follow suit

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/2/2021 9:58:46 PM
Modified: 2/2/2021 9:58:43 PM

LEBANON — Officials in Lebanon and Hanover are leading efforts to form a coalition of towns and cities that would offer lower-cost and environmentally friendly power to residents across the Granite State.

The Hanover Selectboard voted last week to join the Community Power Coalition of New Hampshire, a nonprofit that will support municipalities’ efforts to supply electricity through bulk purchases.

The Lebanon City Council will decide Wednesday whether to follow suit. Together, officials say, the two communities could provide a jump-start needed to get another 30 government entities in New Hampshire on board and challenge utilities’ traditional hold on the electric grid.

Other potential members include the city of Nashua and Cheshire County.

If the coalition succeeds, demand for electricity from community power could top that of several utility companies and greatly benefit residential customers, according to Donald Kreis, New Hampshire’s consumer advocate.

By offering up thousands of customers, he said, the coalition could attract offers from electric suppliers at competitive rates. Towns also would get to decide where the energy comes from, allowing them to set and meet greater sustainability goals, added Kreis, a state official who represents the interests of residential ratepayers before the Public Utilities Commission.

“That would make them a formidable presence in the wholesale market,” he said.

Lebanon Assistant Mayor Clifton Below said the coalition is based on similar groups in Massachusetts, Vermont and California that allow municipalities to procure electricity for residents and businesses through the open market.

Below, a former public utilities commissioner, worked over the last 18 months with consultants and officials from neighboring towns to get the coalition started, following on the heels of a 2019 state law that opened the door to municipal aggregation.

Community power, he said, could lead to several cost-saving initiatives. For instance, the city could choose to buy from a supplier offering lower prices, or it could implement newer, more dynamic ways of calculating bills, such as “real time” pricing that would offer lower rates for running a dishwasher overnight, when the demand for power is less.

Below also said the program could offer options for people to get a larger share of their energy through renewable sources, such as solar and wind.

“To keep customers around, we want to create options where people can see savings compared to utility default service,” he said.

Ultimately, Below said, Lebanon hopes to implement a system that would convert existing Liberty Utilities customers over to a new entity called Lebanon Community Power. However, residents and other utility users, including businesses, would have the option of opting out.

In Hanover, officials hope to utilize community power to help it achieve the town’s goal of converting to 100% renewable energy for electricity, heating and transportation by 2050.

The town currently strives for that goal by purchasing renewable energy certificates, a form of proof that renewable energy is being produced elsewhere, according to Town Manager Julia Griffin. But that doesn’t fully meet the spirit of Hanover’s “Ready for 100” pledge, she said.

Liberty Utilities, which supplies most of the electricity used in Hanover, still relies on a mix of generators, with only 23% of the mix coming from renewable sources, according to Griffin.

“What we want to be able to do is work with renewable power aggregators to purchase 100% green power,” she said.

Liberty spokeswoman Emily Burnett said in a statement that the company supports community power and “will continue to partner with stakeholders, like the Town of Hanover and the City of Lebanon” to help develop new policies and systems.

While Liberty appears to be on board with the coalition’s efforts, other utilities might not be as willing to cooperate. Legislation in the Statehouse, crafted with the help of the industry, could make it virtually impossible for Lebanon and Hanover to follow through on their plans, according to Below.

A bill, HB 315, presents several hurdles, Below said. For instance, it would require community power programs to mail every electric customer in their service area a notice ahead of the changeover from a traditional utility, but wouldn’t require the utility to turn over names, addresses and account numbers.

Below, a former Democratic state senator, said it would be virtually impossible to comply with the bill. “You might as well repeal the whole enabling statute,” he said.

The legislation isn’t an attack on community power but an attempt to save it, said Rep. Michael Vose, R-Epping, its prime sponsor.

Vose, who chairs the House Committee on Science, Technology and Energy, said he drafted the bill in order to push community power programs through state rulemaking and into the hands of towns and cities faster.

He said there would be at least one amendment offered when the measure goes before the committee, and fixes will address concerns that Below expressed in a Tuesday hearing regarding a similar bill introduced in the Senate.

It’s unclear whether any changes will make it through the legislature this year. The Senate is crafting a omnibus energy bill that Vose said will likely be met with skepticism in the House. Meanwhile, senators are reluctant to take up individual House measures because of time and meetings constraints stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Lebanon City Council will discuss its possible participation in the Community Power Coalition of New Hampshire at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Information on how to join the meeting virtually is located at LebanonNH.gov/Live.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

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