Senate rejects PSNH power plant proposal

The New Hampshire Senate passed a bill spelling out and simplifying the rules for new renewable energy plants, plans for which have been sprouting up all over the state, particularly the North Country.

The debate centered on whether Public Service of New Hampshire would be able to compete in this hot market and build its own 50 megawatt plant in the North Country, split the normally tight party lines, ending with a 16-8 vote against the idea of allowing the utility to enter the market.

PSNH and its supporters said there is a shortfall in energy production, and there is plenty of business for all, particularly since PSNH’s proposed plant is so small. PSNH at least will earmark the energy for New Hampshire, while the independent producers could sell it on the open market out of state, said Sen. Peter Burling, D-Cornish. Ratepayers are subsidizing them as well, he said, because a renewable energy fund comes out of their bill.

“I believe we should allow PSNH to go to the Public Utilities Commission and go through the process,” said Burling. “The question is whether a regulated can participate in this very dynamic market. They will provide jobs. They have a demonstrated capacity, and there is need for economic development.”

If PSNH has to buy this renewable energy elsewhere, it will cost more, said Sen. Robert J. Letourneau, R-Derry. “If we don’t pass this bill, we are going to see higher rates,” he said.

But opponents said that if PSNH gets into the game it won’t be a level playing field because regulated utilities can get ratepayers to eat their losses and still be guaranteed a profit. PSNH could distort the marketplace by overpaying for wood, making the projects uneconomical for competitors. If it wanted to enter the market it could set up an unregulated power producer but wouldn’t be able to pass the risks on to the ratepayers.

“Independent developers take all the risks and all the costs,” said Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, D-Portsmouth. “This free marketplace will bring the best outcome for the North Country, the state and the region.”

In other action, the Senate:

• Passed by voice vote a research and development credit against business taxes. However, the total credit available for all business would be capped at a total of $1 million to match the amount available in the governor‘s and House budgets.

Bob Odell, R-Lempster, said that New Hampshire is the only New England state without such a credit, and it would result in higher-paying jobs. Sen. Joe Foster, D-Nashua, added that he hopes to eventually remove the cap, but called the vote “a good first step.”

• Passed a bill that would clarify the definition of “independent contractor,” making it harder for a contractor to pass off as a “self-employed” worker and independent business. The bill would encourage written agreements between employers and independent contractors, though it would enable the state to crack down on employers who force their workers to sign it.

The problem, said Sen. Margaret Wood Hassan, D-Exeter, is that under current law nobody is paying workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance for the workers, who are often left unprotected if they are laid off or injured. Besides, she said, the current law leaves employers who follow the rules “at a competitive disadvantage.” No one spoke against the bill, which passed on a voice vote.

• Defeated an attempt to begin the process of leasing Cannon Mountain. Supporters of privatization say that the state-run ski area is losing money, and leasing it would not only revitalize the facility, but make money for the state. Opponents voiced concerns of overdevelopment of a state resource. The Senate killed the bill 14-10.
• Passed, 16-8, a bill that would lower the blood lead level in a child that triggers investigation into whether landlords should clean up the lead-containing paint in the apartment the child is in, but every apartment in the building. – BOB SANDERS

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