Net metering bill generates heated debate

Bid to add larger renewable systems stirs debate before House panel

A bill that would open up net metering to large businesses, municipalities, school districts and even small power plants drew a big crowd and heated debate on Wednesday.

Net metering credits renewable energy system owners – be it solar, hydro, wind or wood – for the electricity they add to the grid. Senate Bill 446 would raise the cap on the credit for an individual project from 1 megawatt to 5 megawatts. But a key question is how much a utility would have to pay the producer.

The bill charges the state Public Utilities Commission to come up with the rate. Utilities estimate that it would cost them as much as $30 million in the aggregate,, though that amounts to roughly a fifth of a penny per kilowatt hour.

Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, told the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee that the bill would help prop up six wood-burning plants, which would be able to put a quarter of their output behind the meter, enabling them to get better rates.

Bradley listed the costs of letting those plants fail – the drain on the unemployment fund, the loss of timber and other business tax revenue and the loss of reliable supply during peak demand.

That demand determines the state’s share of transmission costs, which has been growing because it doesn’t have strong renewable and energy-efficiency programs compared to surrounding states. And transmission costs, while a small portion of an overall electric bill, is the fastest-growing portion, said Bradley, and thus a key driver of higher bills.

“So the argument of a subsidy is somewhat mitigated,” he said.

Indeed, the “subsidy is going the other direction” argued Clif Below, former senator and PUC commissioner, now speaking as a city councilor from Lebanon, which would like to expand a group net meeting project that would enable that group to sell energy to local consumers.

The bill, he said is about true “retail competition.”

Jobs at risk?

Abenaki Timber Corp. also liked the bill. The company, headquartered in Kingston with a 1.55 MW hydro dam in Milton, would like to net-meter the whole thing and perhaps throw in some solar panels as well – enabling the company to save money and make capital improvements and perhaps hire more workers.

A group of seven other businesses – including Worthen Industries, Wire Belt Company, Timberland and Stonyfield Farm – endorsed the bill as well.

But the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire stood on the opposite side of the issue.

“These subsidies need to stop,” said Stephanie Lamb, the BIA’s vice president who specializes in energy issues. The wood industry jobs are nothing compared to the 69,000 manufacturing jobs that are at risk because of higher electric costs, she said.

Eversource also opposed the bill, saying that it went against the state’s restructuring efforts.

“Do you want competitive markets or not?” said Donna Gamache, a lobbyist for Eversource. “You are picking winners and losers. You are interrupting the competitive market place.”

She noted that the PUC had already set an interim rate when lawmakers eliminated the global cap on net metering. That settlement, which the PUC endorsed, lowered the amount that residents received for the sale of excess electricity, but left the rates of small commercial users (from 100 KW to 1 MW) pretty much as is, though there are pilot programs in the works to set a more accurate cap.

SB 446 would mandate that the PUC set up an interim rate for projects between 1 MW and 5 MW in six months – which all sides agreed was unrealistic – and it would last a dozen years, a figure that might be reduced Bradley agreed.

“Before the ink is even on the paper, we are already monkeying around with net metering again,” Gamache said. Gamache allowed that there might be some truth in the argument that more net metering could lower transmission costs, “but that’s for another day.”

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