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NH consumer advocate urges scrutiny of three towns' community power programs

A community member holds an informational sheet on April 5, 2023, during a meeting about community power at city hall in Nashua, N.H. (Raquel C. Zaldívar/New England News Collaborative)
Raquel C. Zaldívar
/
New England News Collaborative
A community member holds an informational sheet on April 5, 2023, during a meeting about community power at city hall in Nashua, N.H. (Raquel C. Zaldívar/New England News Collaborative)

Three towns are facing scrutiny from New Hampshire officials as they approach the launch of their community power programs in March.

Those programs would effectively make the towns the default electricity supplier for residents who don’t opt out of the community power program.

But the rate Jaffrey, Milford and New Boston are offering residents is higher than the rate Eversource, the current default supplier, is providing.

Don Kreis, New Hampshire’s consumer advocate, has asked the state’s Public Utilities Commission and the Department of Energy to put the programs on hold and conduct an investigation. He said those towns told their residents they wouldn’t launch programs unless they could offer customers lower rates than Eversource.

When those towns signed contracts to provide electricity to their residents in October, the rate they agreed to – 10.59 cents per kilowatt hour – was below Eversource’s default rate, at the time 12.58 cents.

But now, four months later, the rate is higher than Eversource’s current rate of 8.29 cents.

In a press release, Kreis said he appreciated that the towns arranged for rates that were lower than Eversource’s at the time.

“But I cannot ignore the fact that each town promised the PUC it would not launch an aggregation program unless it could beat the utility's default service rate," he said, "and that simply is not happening here."

Jaffrey Town Manager Jon Frederick said the town is planning to dispute the complaint, arguing their rates are “competitive” with Eversource, which is what the town promised to residents.

The community power rate will be stable for 20 months, while the utility rates could spike again, Frederick said.

“We feel that we have reached out to the entire community and laid out the options, so it's really up to them,” he said. “I think it’s competitive, and personally, I’ve opted into the program.”

As community power grows in New Hampshire, it has carried the possibilities of cheaperelectricity and more renewable energy. But customer savings have become smaller in recent months, as electric rates for Eversource and other major utilities in New Hampshire have come down.

Jaffrey, New Boston and Milford are working with Standard Power to facilitate their community power programs. That company also helped other municipalities, including Keene, Swanzey, Wilton and Marlborough, start community power programs. Those towns began programs with lower rates than Eversource, but now each have higher rates.

Emily Manns, an associate with Standard Power, said she’s still optimistic that the programs can provide savings. She said long-term rates, like the 20-month ones being used by the municipalities they’re working with, can show their value over a longer period of time.

“It's the nature of stable rate programs that they will sit there and the utility rate will go up and down relative to that. And their performance is really only gauged at the end of the contract period,” she said. “Principally, the programs deliver savings over time.”

Municipalities in New Hampshire using a different model for their community power programs through the Community Power Coalition of New Hampshire mainly have lower rates than the state’s utilities right now. Others, like Peterborough, decide to include a small premium in their default rate to support more renewable power.

Henry Herndon, the director of member services with the Community Power Coalition, said their model allows them to use shorter-term contracts and change their rates as the utility rates change.

“As utility rates fall, we’re able to have the flexibility to adjust our rates to maintain savings to customers,” he said.

For all community power programs, customers can opt out and move back to their utility for electricity supply, or they can move to a competitive electricity supplier.

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.

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