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Peterborough and Cheshire County eye community power plans for savings, green energy

  • The Community Power Law, NH SB 286, allows municipalities to purchase electricity on behalf of their residents. Multiple municipalities can unite to purchasing energy at still lower costs, and participating communities can opt to increase and diversify their green energy portfolios. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The Community Power Law, NH SB 286, allows municipalities to purchase electricity on behalf of their residents. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 1/16/2020 2:59:15 PM

Since a new state law went into effect last fall a number of municipalities have begun exploring how a community power plan could work for them.

The Community Power Law, NH SB 286, allows municipalities to purchase electricity on behalf of their residents. Multiple municipalities can unite to purchasing energy at still lower costs, and participating communities can opt to increase and diversify their green energy portfolios.

“By aggregating energy use into larger blocks for purchasing power, towns can help entire communities save money on energy and work toward other goals, such as sustainability, resilience and support for local renewable energy and efficiency businesses and contractors,” Peterborough Energy Committee chair Emily Manns wrote.

PEC member Dori Drachman said that many municipal properties, school systems and large businesses already benefit in savings from “group buys” of energy.

“Residents have not had that option,” she said.

New Hampshire has had a municipal aggregation law for decades, Clean Energy NH’s Henry Herndon said, but was rarely, if ever, utilized because it required residents to opt into any program developed. Under the new law, all residents of any town, city, or county that votes in a community power plan are automatically enrolled, but individuals can opt out at any time. 

The bill was widely supported in the state legislature because it embodies ideals across the political spectrum, Herndon said.

“It's all about leveraging markets, and competitive market forces, and private sector innovation to expand customer choice, and that choice can be tailored to the community's specific goals,” Herndon said. 

This made it appealing to legislators interested in competitive markets and small government, as well as environmentalists looking to facilitate renewable energy use. The law was supported by a number of municipalities as well as Clean Energy NH and the Conservation Law Foundation, Herndon said.

“The law allows towns to have some more independence and agency in their renewable energy portfolio, custom-selecting the proportion of renewable energy the collective purchases,” Drachman said, including the option to prioritize local programs. 

Drachman said this could provide a local market to green energy entrepreneurs, who could easily identify towns in search of, say, energy from small scale hydroelectric.

Communities could even subsidize energy efficiency improvements for low income homes through the law’s provisions, Drachman said, by allowing residents the option of paying a fraction of a penny more for their energy per kilowatt.

The law’s potential for expanding renewable energy is the primary draw for the Peterborough Energy Committee, Drachman said, as well as for the Keene Energy and Climate Committee, which has committed to 100 percent renewable electricity in the city by 2030, but it’s by far not the only appealing aspect. Community power plans also appeal to communities simply looking to save additional money, such as the Cheshire County legislation, which is working closely with the Keene committee as it looks into the potential for a county-wide plan.

“The county has always been very interested in energy savings,” Cheshire County Assistant Administrator Rod Bouchard said, citing large energy draws from some of the County’s properties, which include the Department of Corrections and 150-bed Maplewood Nursing Home.

He said he sees the opportunity for a community power plan as the next initiative the county could take on to save taxpayers money through energy savings.

“We're on a learning journey trying to figure out what is actually possible, what makes sense … financially, [and] how this would come together under the new state law,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out who the heck has this kind of expertise, who can help guide us down this path.”

One of the biggest questions Bouchard said he’s trying to answer is how a program might be administered.

“You're actually dealing in the wholesale markets,” he said, an “incredibly complex operation.”

To do that, Bouchard is looking to other states that have implemented similar projects, such as Massachusetts communities that have adopted community electricity aggregation programs. Bouchard said the Massachusetts projects have shared consultants with Clean Energy NH, which has been facilitating many of the recent informational sessions on the law and connecting interested communities to one another.

Lebanon and Hanover are two communities that will likely have a community power-related initiative on their ballots this spring, Drachman said. Those early adopters will provide another example for other municipalities throughout the state to watch. 

At this point, Drachman sees a town the size of Peterborough or smaller most realistically participating by joining a larger entity. Statewide, larger cities and counties have recognized their superior ability to implement a community energy program, she said, and have expressed willingness to allow the smaller towns to join into their agreements.

“We don't know yet, whether it would burden the cities to include smaller towns,” she said, but “it is the vehicle for smaller towns to be able to follow through on a commitment to renewables,” when they might not otherwise be able to afford the necessary staffing or consultations.

The best way for residents to get involved in the community power planning process, Herndon said, is to join your local energy committee.

“If your community doesn't have one, form a local energy committee,” he said, because the law requires a dedicated committee to develop the plan that any town, city, or county would ultimately vote on.

The next step is to contact Clean Energy NH, Herndon said, as they’re building a network to share information among the two dozen or so municipalities that have already begun the process of developing a community energy plan.

Drachman said the PEC is looking for further information before they propose forming a community power committee.

“There’s a lot to look forward to in terms of dialogue this year,” she said, and the PEC will meet with county commissioners  and Clean Energy NH this month to further clarify their recommendations. 

“The PEC will participate in Select Board meetings and public information sessions to help this Committee get off to a great start, including providing members and contributing ideas to a comprehensive Community Power Plan,” Manns wrote.


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