Is end in sight for N.H. business energy-efficiency programs?

RGGI funds may be cut off for initiatives that aid small, large businesses

Two programs that provide energy-efficiency grants to businesses may come to an end unless New Hampshire House and Senate conferees can work out a deal over the next two days.

Senate Bill 268 would give small portion of the funds raised through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative cap and trade program to Give Power Back, which is managed through the New Hampshire Retail Association and is aimed at small businesses, and Pay For Performance, or P4P, a program for large businesses managed by TRC, a Portsmouth engineering and consulting firm.

Give Power Back pays half the cost of an in-depth energy audit and rebates 30 percent of the cost up to a maximum of $30,000. P4P rebates are determined by the amount of energy saved, but businesses end up paying a little more than a third of a project’s costs, according to Tom Rooney, vice president of programs for TRC.

Rooney pointed to a recent national report that praised the program’s “whole elephant” approach.

Both were among the last to be funded by the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission with RGGI funds. While New Hampshire still participates in the multi-state program, it now returns most of the funds to ratepayers and dedicates what’s left to utilities’ energy-efficiency core programs. Lawmakers, primarily Republicans, argued that the PUC was picking winners and losers by funding targeted programs.

The aforementioned business programs lingered on (along with a revolving loan program by the Business Finance Authority that does not need more funding to continue), but their money will soon run out. The Give Power Back program, which was awarded $3.4 million in two grants in 2009 and 2010, has about $400,000 left, and will shut down at the end of the year without additional funds, according to Amanda Holden, who manages the program.

P4P, which received about $5 million, has $750,000 left and could shut down in June, though it will stop accepting new applications over the next few months without added funds.

SB 268, as amended by the House, would enable the PUC to continue those programs, with the caveat that they file annual reports about their progress – a response to complaints that they lack transparency.

House conferees argued that the programs allow a more comprehensive program, not primarily one based on electricity-related savings, such as the core programs run by the utilities. Those core programs would still get the bulk share of the RGGI funds, about $25 million. The business programs were hoping to get about $1 million.

“It’s not a slap in the face at the core programs,” said Rep. David Borden, D-New Castle. “It’s keeping continuity and allowing for two different approaches.”

However, Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, said that since the money comes from generators of electric power, it ultimately comes from electric ratepayers. So was it fair, he asked, that they were subsidizing other kinds of energy savings? And, he said, the programs raise the question of residential customers subsidizing commercial customers.

Finally, he worried that the use of more funds for conserving energy might eventually result in ratepayers paying more.

Bradley said he was willing to let the retail association’s program continue, but not P4P, citing complaints from BAE Systems.

BAE, TRC’s Rooney told NHBR, scaled back its energy program considerably and there were problems with documenting project costs, so the rebate was not as large as was hoped. But he told lawmakers that one complaint out of the 40 businesses served was not indicative of the problem.

On Tuesday, conferees agreed that rebidding the awards every three or five years was a good idea, but could not agree on whether to include TRC or whether the program would sunset. The House conferees also wanted any evaluation to include the CORE programs.

Both sides agreed to meet Thursday morning to hash out their differences.

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