Controversial clean energy bill becomes law without governor’s signature

Measure seeks to boost wood, solar industries


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Senate Bill 129, a measure that gives a boost to the state’s wood and solar energy industries but could also raise electric bills, became law July 11 without Gov. Chris Sununu’s signature.

The bill – dubbed the Clean Energy Jobs Act of 2017 – was the only significant energy bill passed in the recently concluded legislative session. It was controversial to the very end, pitting the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire against other business groups, such as the NH Clean Tech Council and the NH Timberland Owners Association.

The timberland owners, who maintained that the economic health of the wood industry was at stake, packed hearings on the bill, saying it would preserve hundreds of jobs. But the BIA contended it would significantly increase electric rates, resulting in a loss of manufacturing jobs.

The bill had the support of a significant number of Republican lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, its prime sponsor.

The measure was approved in the Senate on a voice vote, and cleared the House on a 222-84 vote on June 1, with some amendments that the Senate accepted shortly afterwards.

At the last minute, lawmakers included a repeal of the $6 million electric consumption tax, widely believed to be a face-saver so the governor wouldn’t veto the bill

Renewable energy law

Both sides lobbied the governor’s office extensively.

Jasen Stock, executive director of the Timberland Owners Association, said he had heard the governor’s office got more calls on this issue than any other.

The governor was reportedly undecided about what action to take even shortly before Monday at midnight, when the bill went into effect. 

In a statement, Governor Sununu called it “important to balance a smart renewable energy portfolio and economic growth in New Hampshire’s North Country with potential costs to ratepayers,” adding: “Given that we were able to put the repeal of the electricity consumption tax in place to offset any potential costs to ratepayers, allowing this bill to become law makes sense. As we strive for an energy portfolio that is efficient, effective, and affordable, it is critical that we study the long-term viability of generation resources, particularly those that rely on mandated ratepayer support.”

SB 129 tinkers with the renewable energy law, which mandates that utilities increase the percentage of renewable sources in their energy portfolio to 25 percent by 2025. If they don’t meet the Renewable Portfolio Standard, they have to pay into the Renewable Energy Fund.

SB 129 mandates that 15 percent of the REF be dedicated to low-income solar projects, and it increases the portfolio percentage required from solar sources from 0.3 percent to 0.7 percent by 2025.

The bill “will also remove the 10-kilowatt limit on the residential solar rebate program, allowing for greater beneficial electrification of our state's grid, while reducing peak demand and saving money for all,” said Kate Epsen, executive director of the Clean Tech Council, who contended that the bill would “help stabilize and reduce electric rates while also allowing for economic growth.”

But solar isn’t the most controversial part of the bill. That comes from the provision that increases the amount that utilities would have to pay for biofuel-generated energy. That means millions of dollars more for wood-burning electric generators, which are increasingly becoming the only local customers for wood chips due to the demise of the paper industry.

How much will cost ratepayers depends on who you talk to. One NH Public Utilities Commission estimate said it could cost $100 million, but at an earlier hearing, another official put the number at $75 million, which would amount to about an additional 60 cents a month on an average residential customer’s bill, or about $600 a month for a large industrial user.

While those estimates are viewed as the worst-case scenario, opponents of the bill claim that that the scenario is likely to occur in the future.

“We have worked very hard to wage legislative awareness about the impact of the high cost of electricity,” said Dave Juvet of the BIA. “This is a step in the wrong direction. Every analysis said the costs are going to go up.”

This would particularly affect manufacturers, which is a source of economic development and good-paying jobs, said BIA President Jim Roche in a recent op-ed article.

“This is exactly the opposite of what's needed to keep manufacturers and other large energy users growing in New Hampshire. Manufacturing alone employs 68,000 people in the state and drives our economy in ways no other sector does,” wrote Roche.

But sawmills are also manufacturers, argued Stock, who cited a Plymouth State University economic analysis released in March that said the six independent biomass power plants that SB 129 supports annually contribute $250 million to the state's economy and support more than 900 jobs.

“These power plant are a real asset, and they produce electricity with a local fuel that we create,” Stock said.

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