Sununu streetlight veto has impact in Hanover

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/15/2019 9:45:43 PM
Modified: 7/15/2019 9:45:39 PM

LEBANON — New Hampshire towns and cities looking to replace antiquated streetlights might have to wait another year before making to switch to energy efficient models. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu last week vetoed a bill that would have allowed municipalities to purchase existing streetlights from utility companies, calling the measure “overly prescriptive.”

State regulators are better equipped to draft rules governing streetlights, not the Legislature, Sununu, a two-term Republican, argued in his veto message.

“The State of New Hampshire needs to be more nimble than that to address future technology changes,” he wrote in a letter dated July 10.

But Hanover officials predict the process to get new streetlights will be “anything but nimble.” The town has for years sought to replace high-pressure sodium lights owned by Liberty Utilities with LEDs.

“Trying to get the streetlight bulb replacement front and center with Liberty has been an effort for more than 8 years and the (Public Utilities Commission) approval process through a rate case is equally as difficult,” Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin wrote in an email on Monday.

Griffin said Hanover pays about $75,000 a year for streetlights that are outdated.

To replace them and install technology capable of either turning off or dimming some lights would require the town to pay all at once, she said, and Liberty would still own the fixtures.

“It has been frustrating to watch how slow and unenlightened the process is here in NH while right across the river in Vermont, Green Mountain Power installed LED bulbs more than 5 years ago,” Griffin said.

In Lebanon, officials are less worried the veto will derail plans to shut off about 90 streetlights and replace the remaining 800 with LEDs.

“I think we will just have to make our case with the PUC that the city should be allowed to own streetlights that it pays for,” said Assistant Mayor Clifton Below.

Below, a former PUC commissioner, has been in talks with state regulators and Liberty Utilities to allow the city’s streetlight conversion. While those talks have had hiccups, he said, the city could see new lights installed by fall.

Liberty officials agreed with that assessment.

“We were hoping to have the new LED street light rate approved for July 1, but the PUC instead asked us to file a special contract in order to review and approve the rates,” Liberty spokesman John Shore said in an email regarding the talks. “We are working on that contract now and hope to have it ready for filing soon.”

However, whatever agreement the PUC decides on would likely just effect Lebanon, Below said. Other communities will have to await until next year to see if regulators issue long-term rules.

I’m disappointed that the governor vetoed (the bill). It seems petty and lame” said Below, a former Democratic state senator who helped draft the Legislation. “But we can work with the situation as is.”

New Hampshire Consumer Advocate Donald Kreis, who also supported the bill, said there are two proceedings where the PUC could allow for town ownership of streetlights.

“It’s in those cases that we and other parties can push the utilities to do the right thing about streetlighting,” he said.

While talks surrounding streetlights continue at the PUC, lawmakers are also mulling whether to attempt a veto override.

Sununu’s veto came as a surprise to state Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, who sponsored the bill with state Rep. George Sykes, D-Lebanon.

Their legislation passed both the House and Senate on voice votes, which are typically reserved for uncontroversial matters.

And there was no opposition to the bill during a February hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee (utility companies Eversource and Unitil said they were neutral).

“I personally find it challenging to know what criteria is being used for these vetoes,” Hennessey said, adding the governor has struck down several bills with bipartisan support this year.

Hennessey said it’s unclear whether the Legislature will attempt to overturn Sununu’s veto. There are other matters, such as increasing the net metering cap, that might take a higher priority, she said.

“I feel like there’s a lot of game playing not unlike in the federal government with people trying to figure out when they can oppose the governor without retaliation,” Hennessey said. “Therefore, (legislative leaders are) going to pick probably the bills that they know more and care about to put their energy into.”

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




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