Backus: Raising NH’s solar standards would yield many economic benefits

It would lower electric bills, add jobs and expand local investment

Any day now, Governor Sununu is expected to release an important decision regarding the future of New Hampshire’s energy market. His choice? Whether or not to sign Senate Bill 168 into law will determine the trajectory of solar energy in the state moving forward.

If passed, the bill will increase New Hampshire’s Class II Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) from a tiny 0.7% to 5.4% by 2025. (The standards regulate the percentage of a state’s electricity generated via solar power.) Compared to policies in many other states, SB 168 would be a relatively modest step forward. For example, Massachusetts’ RPS is set at 16% and scheduled to increase by 2% annually.

While SB 168 would be a comparatively modest policy change, it would nonetheless offer an opportunity to save all bill payers money, add local jobs and economic investment, improve public health and safeguard New Hampshire’s tourism industry.

Many reputable studies debunk a common misconception regarding solar power by providing evidence in support of “reverse cost shifts” – that is, net savings to all ratepayers. A 2017 study conducted by the state Public Utilities Commission found no evidence of a cost-shift from solar generators to ratepayers. In fact, the Acadia Center estimates the value of solar energy to all grid-dependent ratepayers at 19-24 cents/kWh, not including an additional 6.7 cents/kWh in societal value. These benefits are greater than half the full retail value of conventionally-generated electricity.

Studies conducted in Maine and Massachusetts offer similar evidence of reverse cost-shifts — that is, net benefits to the public. These benefits occur primarily because peak solar generation frequently coincides with peak grid demand. As a result, the need for the costly and polluting power plants that supply energy during these peak demand periods is reduced and bill payers are less likely to face surges in utility costs.

Raising New Hampshire’s RPS to 5.4% would increase access to more affordable, efficient and consistent energy generation, lowering the costs faced by bill payers across the board. Far from driving up net costs, passing SB 168 would create a net benefit to New Hampshire utilities and households.

Not only would this bill save money for all bill payers, it would also grow our state economy by adding jobs and expanding local investment.

Currently, solar accounts for only 0.7% of New Hampshire’s energy generation, however this modest figure represents $214 million in local investment and almost 1,000 high-quality, local jobs.

Passing SB 168 and increasing our state’s RPS to 5.4% would increase private sector investments by as much as $1 billion and add thousands of in-state jobs. Jobs in the solar industry are high-paying and trade-based. This makes them an important source of work for young people lacking four-year degrees who might otherwise find themselves trapped in low-skill, low-wage positions or unemployed.

The economic benefits of a utility market that depends on fossil fuels will last only as long as the finite resources on which it depends. The market for solar energy, however, promises a long term return on investment.

The economic costs of vetoing SB 168 are not limited to utility markets. Delaying a statewide investment in solar energy would result in measurable losses to public health and tourism as well. Every year in New Hampshire, energy consumption accounts for 13.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Meanwhile, roughly 100 residents die prematurely due to respiratory problems associated with air pollution. The annual cost of treating these health complications is estimated to be roughly $1 million.

Carbon dioxide emissions threaten not only public health but also many species of wildlife upon which the state’s multibillion-dollar tourism industry depends, such as moose and loons. Every year, a staggering percentage of young moose die due to rising carbon dioxide emissions and resulting shifts in local ecology.

By raising the state’s RPS, SB 168 would offset more than 500,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year. This reduction is the equivalent to taking more than 120,000 cars off the road and decreasing coal-consumption by over 300,000 tons. A change of this magnitude would significantly reduce the serious costs to public health and the environment that result from a fossil-fuel-dependent economy.

A choice to veto SB 168 is a choice to send billions of hard-earned New Hampshire dollars out of state (and around the world) to buy dirty, non-renewable fossil fuel power. It is a choice in favor of unreliable electricity generation, inconsistent utility rates, and unnecessarily high costs to society.

The alternative? An energy future characterized by a homegrown, self-sufficient, clean energy economy driven by dependable power, consistent and reduced utility costs, growing investments, and reduced unemployment.

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

Categories: Energy and Environment, Government, Opinion