CONCORD — New Hampshire Democrats who took control of the legislature in November are proposing a series of bills that could increase electric bills across the Granite State by as much as $5 billion over the next two decades.

One bill, HB 365,  would subsidize large-scale solar projects at the expense of New Hampshire ratepayers. The bill is similar to one vetoed last year by Gov. Chris Sununu (R-Newfields) that would have dramatically expanded the state’s net metering program.  And the state senate has already approved a trio of bills that could increase utility costs for Grate State ratepayers.

Net metering allows electric utility customers to sell back solar power to the grid, offsetting electricity used when the sun isn’t shining. On a small scale, this provides an incentive for homeowners and small businesses to install solar without much impact on overall rates. But on a larger scale, net metering would require utilities to purchase power on warm sunny days when demand is low.

New Hampshire’s net metering program is currently limited to customer-generators that produce up to one megawatt of electricity. HB 365 would increase that limit to five megawatts. The bill is backed by the solar power industry, and by several municipalities that would build solar power generation stations to offset their electric bills.

The House approved HB 365 by a vote of 254-98 on March 20, with unanimous support from House Democrats. A majority of House Republicans opposed the bill, arguing that Granite Staters already pay too much for electricity.

“Based on the preponderance of projections, I believe that this will save ratepayer money,” Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes (D-Concord) tells New Hampshire Journal.

Feltes argues that large-scale net metering could curb demand at peak times and help the Granite State produce more of its own electricity.

“Generating more power in-state, including through distributed generation, or reducing our demand through energy efficiency, means we pay less for out-of-state transmission projects,” Feltes says.

Feltes says creating incentives for cities and towns to generate their own solar power, and sell excess power back to the grid, would benefit local taxpayers. But would that comes at the expense of local ratepayers?

Rep. Michael Harrington (R-Stafford), ranking member of the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee who twice served as a Public Utilities Commissioner, thinks it would.

“More distributed generation, it’s a good idea. But the market rate was 4.2 cent per kilowatt hour. The default service rate was 10 cents per kilowatt hour.” Harrington argues. “If they want to do it, that’s fine. But why should everyone else pay for it?”

Harrington says anyone taking advantage of the higher five-megawatt cap would have to install acres of solar panels to generate that much electricity.

Don Kreis serves as New Hampshire’s consumer advocate and is charged with representing the interests of the state’s residential utility customers.

“Things that make it easier for customers to net meter are good. On the other hand, we’re trying to minimize how much others see their electric bills go up,” Kreis says.

Marc Brown, President of the New England Ratepayers Association, says that projecting electric rates into the future is inherently uncertain, but he estimates that the expanded net metering program would effectively transfer $10 million from homeowners and small business to those who can afford to build large-scale solar.

“Despite claims to the contrary Senate Bill 159 has the potential to create tens of millions of dollars in cost-shifts from the have-nots to the haves,” Brown stated in a press release last week.

Feltes says the Senate net metering bill attempts to mitigate against short-term cost shifting from large industrial customers to individual ratepayers, which Kreis says is a good step.

Harrington doesn’t believe that expanding net metering would bring more power to the grid when it’s needed most. Solar panels don’t work at night, and work for fewer hours in the winter, when homes with electric heat demand the most power. Harrington adds that solar panels lose efficiency on very hot days, when New Hampshire’s air conditioners are taxing the power grid. He says solar is most plentiful when demand, and electricity prices, are low.

New Hampshire residents could also face higher electric bills from renewable power mandates approved last week by the Senate’s Democratic majority.

Senate Bill 168 would dramatically increase the percentage of solar power that utilities would be required the purchase. New Hampshire’s Renewable Portfolio Standard mandates utilities get at least 0.6 percent of their power from solar. SB 168 would double the solar mandate this year, and ramp it up to 5.4 percent of New Hampshire’s electric grid by 2025.

Brown estimates those mandates will drive up electric rates in New Hampshire by $5 million this year alone, and as much as $30 million a year by 2035.

SB 124, sponsored by Sen. Martha Fuller Clark (D-Portsmouth), would increase the state’s overall renewable power mandate from 25 percent by 2025 to 60 percent by 2040.

Harrington says there’s no way New Hampshire could generate that much power from renewable sources in the foreseeable future, especially since large-scale hydroelectric projects don’t qualify under the RPS mandate.

“Where are we going to put all the wind farms?” Harrington asks. “You’re not going to do it with solar, unless you’re going to cover the landscape.”

Feltes says the 60 percent mandate is achievable.

“Sen. Fuller Clark developed this bill in consultation with people in the (solar) industry,” Feltes says. “There are different projections on rate impacts. The balance of the hearing was that the rate impacts would benefit New Hampshire.”

Kreis doesn’t believe that increasing the state’s RPS mandates would lower electric rates.

“It can only possibly have one effect, to increase rates.”

But Kreis says it is up to the Legislature to determine if such policy preferences are worth the cost to residential ratepayers..

Last week, Brown criticized the Senate for passing along higher rates to New Hampshire electric customers. “The results will be higher costs to New Hampshire’s businesses and most vulnerable citizens, especially those who live on fixed incomes like the elderly and the poor.”

“I disagree,” Feltes says. “On balance, this means good New Hampshire jobs, lower electric rates, and lower property taxes.”

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