Local municipalities still awaiting final state rules for community power plans

Jul. 23—Municipalities with community power plans awaiting state approval faced another delay this month when the N.H. Public Utilities Commission postponed voting on final rules.

"The PUC has had almost three years since the legislation passed to write the rules," said Marge Shepardson, chair of Marlborough's community power committee, of the New Hampshire law authorizing these programs. "I feel like they're dragging their feet and holding up towns all over the state that are ready to start community power."

Tony Cassady, co-chair of Peterborough's community power task force, said that group also was disappointed by the delay.

"With electric rates rising from our utility, Eversource, we'd like to be able to launch Community Power as soon as possible, but we are in a holding pattern due to the PUC's delays in issuing the rules," he said in an email.

Other area reactions to this latest lag were mixed. While acknowledging she'd wanted the rules finalized earlier, Keene's senior planner Mari Brunner said community power is a complex issue. "We are looking forward to seeing the final rules later this month, which hopefully will allow us to move forward with our local program as quickly as possible," she said in an email.

Under a community power program, a municipal government rather than a utility sources electricity for local consumers. This gives the municipality more control over the power supply, allowing it to seek lower-cost or greener options, while a utility continues to maintain transmission lines and deliver the electricity.

Legislation allowing for these programs in New Hampshire took effect in 2019, and in 2021, Keene became the first municipality in the state to adopt one of them. Harrisville passed its own plan last year, and Swanzey, Marlborough, Peterborough and Walpole passed theirs earlier in 2022. But plans must be approved by the PUC to be implemented.

The PUC denied Keene's and Harrisville's plans because they did not meet rules that are yet to be established by the commission. The plans were denied without prejudice, meaning they can be resubmitted for approval.

The rules will cover a variety of topics, including the relationship between municipal and county aggregators and distribution utilities, access to customer data for planning and operation, metering and billing, according to the PUC.

Still, this month's postponed rulemaking decision may not further delay community power plans' implementation, according to Andrea Hodson, chair of Harrisville's electric aggregation committee.

If the PUC files its decision on the rules with the Office of Legislative Services on July 28 — the day after the commission is set to vote — the proposal could be heard by the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules at its meeting scheduled for Aug. 18, according to Hodson.

Plans cannot be approved by the PUC until the rules are approved by the legislative committee, but can enter a 60-day queue, according to Robert Hayden, president and chief technical officer of Standard Power of America, which worked with Keene and Swanzey on their plans.

Like others, Hayden called the delay frustrating.

"It's difficult at a time when rate relief is important," he said.

Henry Herndon, an energy consultant affiliated with the Community Power Coalition of New Hampshire, speaking on behalf of his company Herndon Enterprises, echoed this.

"It's unfortunate ... [The PUC] had almost three years to do their jobs," he said. The nonprofit coalition, established last year, assists municipalities and counties with establishing community power programs.

Herndon said the plans would lower energy rates in the face of the current rate shock.

According to Eversource, New Hampshire energy prices are at an all-time high this summer. Eversource customers who use 600 kilowatt hours of power each month will see a monthly bill increase of approximately $71.

Tom Benoit can be reached 352-5993 or tbenoit@keenesentinel.com.