Energy strategy update is really a ‘down-date’

The Union Leader has praised the recent update of the 2014 state energy strategy. This update was principally the product of two of Governor Sununu’s staffers, neither of whom had prior expertise in energy policy.

Praise for the 2018 strategy is wholly unwarranted. In fact, the so-called “update” is more accurately described as a “down-date.” It was a near wholesale reversal of the priorities of the 2014 strategy.

It starts with the canard that New Hampshire suffers from uniquely high costs for electricity. The truth is that New Hampshire is in the middle of energy costs in New England and, although the region does have higher rates than some other parts of the country, this is not a serious threat to economic expansion here. Part of the reason for this is that, even with somewhat higher rates than, for example, the Southeast, New Hampshire does not have substantially higher bills, ranking 21st. This is because our businesses and residential customers have found ways to reduce their demand. The real barrier to business expansion in New Hampshire is not energy costs. It is workforce and workforce housing.

It was telling that Governor Sununu’s example of the detrimental effect of New Hampshire’s supposed high costs was Hitchiner Manufacturing, which was planning an expansion, but supposedly considered not choosing the Granite State. Hitchiner in fact moved ahead with its planned New Hampshire expansion — hardly a telling example of the adverse effects of New Hampshire electric costs.

The good news is that the strategy continues to advocate for maximizing cost-effective energy efficiency. This is the lowest-cost strategy to lower costs. Much evidence shows that for every dollar invested in cost-effective energy efficiency, we get a four-dollar return.

The good news ends there. Some issues:

The strategy suggests that we declare nuclear power a renewable resource. It isn’t. The uranium fuel rods cannot be re-used and, after irradiation, end up as the most deadly industrial waste in human history. Furthermore, the idea, recently expressed by a spokesman for the nuclear industry, that nuclear power deserves ratepayer support; i.e., a subsidy, because it is non-carbon emitting, is surprising, given that the strategy decries support for other non-emitting sources, such as solar and wind.

Not too long ago, New England hosted nine nuclear power reactors. Today only four remain in operation, and one of those, the Pilgrim plant in Plymouth, Mass., is due to close next spring. None of these plants was closed by regulatory order; all were shuttered by their owners’ inability to run them profitably in a competitive market.

On transportation, the strategy suggests that we “put people in full car seats, not train cars.” But everyone knows that if we restore our tracks so that passenger rail is again available in south central New Hampshire, those improved rails will carry not just commuters, but freight; moving freight by rail is far more efficient than using trucks.

And the strategy suggests that New Hampshire back off from its support for renewable energy even though we still are by law committed to obtaining 25 percent of electric supply from renewables by 2025. The argument is that renewables, and especially solar, get subsidies. The authors apparently don’t have similar problems with the vast array of subsidies for traditional sources, including coal, oil and nuclear.

But our modest support for solar will help us lower costs. Solar, especially when combined with the rapid development of storage technologies, will enable us to cut demand at its highest — and therefore most costly — point, thereby saving the energy sector big dollars. The most expensive power is always that used to meet peak demand.

The strategy is not only disappointing on its substance, but because the authors chose to ignore the vast preponderance of the public opinion they solicited in various stakeholder meetings. Ditto for the vast majority of public comments they received.

New Hampshire already lags our neighbors in advancing to a more efficient and cleaner energy future.

This “down-date” will not help us get back into a more competitive position with Massachusetts, Vermont or Connecticut. It is a big step indeed, but in the wrong direction.

Rep. Bob Backus, D-Manchester, is a member of the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee.

Categories: Opinion