by Amanda Gokee, New Hampshire Bulletin
As electricity rates skyrocket in New Hampshire, the Public Utilities Commission is investigating whether there’s a cheaper way for utilities to purchase energy.
Electric rates are going up across all four of the state’s utilities, but the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative’s rates are the least expensive at 17 cents per kilowatt hour. That’s 5 cents less than Eversource and Liberty, and 9 cents less than Unitil’s new rates set to go into effect in December. While the co-op goes out to market frequently, the other utilities are allowed to purchase energy only twice a year. Now the state is investigating whether changing those regulations could lead to cheaper energy for ratepayers.
Stakeholders gave opening statements before the PUC Wednesday, voicing broad agreement about the need to address soaring energy prices. But there was some disagreement over whether the PUC was the appropriate forum and skepticism that energy procurement could significantly lower electric bills.
Participants included the state’s three regulated utilities, renewable energy generators, the New Hampshire Department of Energy, and clean energy and consumer advocates. A representative from the co-op attended the meeting but doesn’t have to participate according to the PUC because it’s not regulated in the same way as the other utilities.
PUC Chair Dan Goldner attributed soaring energy prices to global market conditions but said the investigation would look at creative solutions to assist ratepayers with the tools available.
“Laddering” is one such tool brought up by participants Wednesday. This means instead of buying enough energy for six months at a time, contracts that last for a variety of time frames and from various sources are layered, offering greater flexibility if better deals for power arise. The co-op already uses laddering, which it says helps keep prices lower for ratepayers.
Representatives for Liberty, Unitil, and Eversource were skeptical that changing how energy is purchased could lower electric bills in a meaningful way.
“Despite the sheer desire to alleviate the pressure created by these price spikes, the degree to which energy procurement process can actually lower prices could be negligible if it can lower prices at all,” said Jessica Chiavara, an Eversource attorney. “At most, adjustments to the process through laddering purchases or other means may serve to mitigate volatility in prices, but will not necessarily lower costs to customers.”
The goal of the investigation is to provide additional information, but the investigation itself won’t create a binding policy. Consumer Advocate Don Kreis argued that the new Department of Energy is the correct place for such an investigation, and said he was disappointed the department has not initiated it or hosted a public conversation.
He read aloud from a query he had received from a ratepayer. “I am trying to find out how Eversource is allowed and approved to increase our electric rates by 117 percent,” the letter read. “This is absolutely ridiculous. I am retired and my income has not increased by 117 percent,” it continued. “I see where the Legislature approved some assistance, but I do not qualify. What can be done about this unjust increase?”
“There needs to be some accountability and some responsibility here,” Kreis told the commission. “It really should be up to the PUC, the Department of Energy, and the utilities to respond to queries like that and explain to the public exactly how we got into the pickle that we are in today.”
Kreis said his office is committed to trying to find solutions to what amounts to a crisis for the state’s ratepayers.
Goldner said the commission will request information from the utilities and schedule a meeting in early December to continue the investigation.
This story was written by Amanda Gokee, a reporter at the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.
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