A community power coalition set to launch in NH, for-profit energy providers also make appeals

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-31-2023 7:00 PM

LEBANON — When a nonprofit coalition takes over energy procurement for a handful of Upper Valley towns later this spring, it promises to offer big savings for consumers who have seen rates at the state’s largest utilities soar in recent years.

But in New Hampshire’s deregulated energy market, consumers have long had the option to try to cut their electricity bill by finding an alternative energy provider.

At least one for-profit company has ramped up marketing in a effort to win some market share this spring, before the Lebanon-based Community Power Coalition of New Hampshire, or CPCNH, launches in May.

That leaves homeowners and businesses to sort out the best option.

Donald Kreis, the state’s consumer advocate, said there are critical differences between the for-profit suppliers and the nonprofit community power program that ratepayers should keep in mind.

“I think in the energy space it’s important to ask yourself the question ‘who do you trust?’ Is it a utility? A competitive unregulated supplier...? Or is it going to be your community power aggregation program? I guess what I would respectfully suggest to consumers is that of those three possibilities, only one is obliged to act in your best interest, which is the community power program,” Kreis said.

Enfield, Hanover, Lebanon and Plainfield are among 10 municipalities organized in CPCNH. Unless they choose to opt out, most residents and businesses in those communities will be enrolled in CPCNH’s community power aggregation plan, which is set to begin procuring power in May.

As of now, CPCNH’s cheapest plan, rated at $0.158 per kilowatt hour, or kWh, is slightly higher than the base rates of other third-party suppliers. For-profit companies ENH, Ambit Energy and North American Power, are offering base rates of $0.145, $0.15 and $0.137, respectively. But the rates offered by third-party suppliers — both for-profit and community power — are largely lower than those offered by the state’s regulated utilities, which include Liberty, Eversource, Unitil and the New Hampshire Electric Co-op.

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The potential relief is timely: Last summer, the price of electricity per kWh doubled for Liberty’s residential customers, to $0.22 per kWh. Customers of other utilities were hit with similar increases.

Now third-party suppliers are fighting for the attention of consumers made weary by sticker-shock. As the launch of community power draws nearer, ENH — a Texas-based, for-profit energy provider — has begun sending out its own advertising mailers in Lebanon and Hanover. (ENH’s website claims New England status, but the company’s physical address is in Houston).

In regards to how ENH might stack up to community power, a spokesperson from the company said that “it’s important to note that community power agreements don’t always provide the lowest prices.”

But the bottom line isn’t the only thing to consider when purchasing energy, according to Judith Colla, a member of the Sustainable Hanover Committee, who said consumers should take into account the business models for community power and a third-party supplier like ENH.

“The difference between what (ENH) pays for energy and what they charge you goes towards the stockholders. Whereas the difference for what community power pays for electricity and what they charge customers goes into building a pot of money for the members of community power,” Colla said. “That pot of money we can use to stabilize prices in the future and put towards renewable energy programs. It belongs to the customers.”

Kreis, the consumer advocate, also suspects predatory pricing from the for-profit third-party suppliers.

“It wouldn’t shock me if it turned out that (...) competitive energy suppliers are offering loss-leader rates to residential customers or small customers as a way of thwarting competition from community power programs,” he said.

The 1996 deregulation of New Hampshire’s energy sector spurred a proliferation of new competitive suppliers as customers were freed up to choose their electricity provider and supplier.

Liberty and the other regulated utilities answer to the state’s Public Utilities Commission. They’re boxed in to less nimble pricing, while third-party suppliers — community power programs among them — are not as restricted.

ENH has about 28,000 customers in New Hampshire, around 25,000 of which are residential, according to data from 2022.

The majority of ENH’s customers are locked into their energy plans by contract, and most of the company’s energy plans are affixed to a $100 cancelation fee. Conversely, tt costs nothing to opt out of community power, and residents can opt out or in whenever they choose.

As energy prices change, customers could be increasingly interested in the flexibility offered by community power, said Colla, of the Sustainable Hanover Committee.

“The actual price of electricity is going to be coming down. Liberty established the price of 22 cents when they were worried about the cost of fossil fuels because of Ukraine. That scare is down a little bit now, and so the prices have come down too,” she said.

New Hampshire energy customers pay some of the highest rates in the country, and New England electric prices are generally higher, too. The average in the region hovers around $0.313 per kWh — Boston electric rates are on average $0.386 — while customers in St. Louis, MO pay an average rate of $0.126.

Liberty’s rate adjustments at the beginning of February yielded a small decrease, but are expected to continue to fall.

“That’s part of the reason why these competitive suppliers are sending messages out to everyone now,” she said. “When Liberty comes out with their new rates, they’re going to be lower.”

CPCNH has been advising residents in its towns to watch out for a letter in the mail explaining the ins and outs of its programs’ roll outs. ENH mounted a publicity strike just in time, said Sherry Boschert, a member of the Lebanon Energy Advisory Committee.

“Well this happens to be around the time that some people’s contracts are ending and they know community power is starting,” Boschert said. “So they want to get people on their contract before people sign up. It seems like they’re doing the hard sell to try to lock people into contract now.”

ENH denied the correlation.

“Yes, the company has been marketing more in New Hampshire, but that increase is related to our ability to offer many consumers rates lower than the utility default rate in most NH service areas,” a spokesperson for the company wrote in an email to the Valley News. “The rollout of community power didn’t impact our marketing decision.”

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

CORRECTION: Donald Kreis, the state’s consumer advocate, said, “It wouldn’t shock me if it turned out that (...) competitive energy suppliers are offering loss-leader rates to residential customers or small customers as a way of thwarting competition from community power programs.” A previous version of this story included an extra phrase in Kreis' quote. 

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