Jan. 19—CONCORD — House and Senate leaders from both parties and Gov. Chris Sununu got behind legislation Tuesday to block the Public Utilities Commission from cutting spending on energy efficiency projects.
The legislation would restore spending on these projects to 2020 levels, with future annual increases tied to the inflation index.
House Science Technology and Energy Committee Chairman Michael Vose, R-Kingston, estimated this annual increase would amount to "$5 million to $10 million" each year.
The changes also prevent what could have been a near doubling of a Systems Benefits Charge levied on commercial and industrial ratepayers. The proposal was added to a Vose-authored bill (HB 549) that passed the House earlier this month.
Vose said the amendment is important because it signals to the PUC that the Legislature — not the regulatory body — makes policy.
"This should be immune from tampering by the Public Utilities Commission," Vose said.
Sen. David Watters, D-Dover, credited legislative leaders, electric utility company executives and other stakeholders for coming together behind this amendment.
"I'm just delighted we have gotten to this place," Watters said.
The renewable energy sector and the state's major utilities had agreed to a $358 million budget for these projects from 2021-2023.
But in November, the PUC instead ordered the utilities to cut spending in that agreement by about $200 million. This would reduce energy efficiency spending from $176 million over the past three years down to roughly $158 million over the next three.
Lawyers for Clean Energy NH, energy efficiency companies and municipal partners sued the PUC in court trying to block this decision, warning it could lead to "hundreds, if not thousands" of layoffs by small companies making weatherization and other improvements for homeowners.
A Superior Court judge said that only the state Supreme Court could strike down a PUC decision.
This legislation would short-circuit the regulatory process altogether, which will make Jason Palmer of P&M Insulation very happy.
"Most homes we go to have no heat, no running water," Palmer said, about the working-class customers he serves. "We change the narrative of how these people live."
Bill Newell with Newell & Cathern of Loudon said the PUC decision had put his 25-person business at risk.
"It's been very scary for us. Our work had stopped and we were hanging by a thread," Newell said.
Dan Weeks, vice president of ReVision Energy, said this bill will help avert a crisis for many renewable-energy companies.
"We absolutely think the Legislature needs to step in and set the right direction for the state," Weeks said. "This is an important step, but we do think a lot more needs to be done in the future."
Weeks said he's hoping lawmakers seriously consider a bill (SB 262) to permit larger companies with their own energy needs to build renewable projects larger than the current cap of 1 megawatt.
"We're far behind the rest of New England, and we need to support the growth of local renewables here," Weeks said.
In a letter, Sununu urged the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to move quickly.
"This bill will give greater consistency to New Hampshire's ratepayer-funded energy efficiency for both those benefiting from the programs and those paying the costs," Sununu said.
After the hearing, the Senate panel unanimously approved the amended bill.
Legislative leaders said they hope to get it to Sununu's desk for his signature in the coming weeks.
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