Granite Geek: PUC’s baffling decision shows how energy efficiency can’t get respect

  • A technician for Colonial Insulation sprays foam to make a home more energy efficient. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 12/14/2021 1:18:55 PM
Modified: 12/14/2021 1:18:34 PM

Remember “waste not, want not”? Finger-wagging grandparents muttered that homily when pulling pieces of aluminum foil out of the trash to be cleaned and reused.

The state’s energy regulators sure don’t remember it.

The three-member PUC commission recently made a bafflingly bone-headed move, gutting a statewide energy efficiency program called NH Saves for no good reason. The program uses ratepayer funds to cover some 75% of energy efficiency upgrades for homes that get fuel assistance so they’ll use less energy, saving them money.

This program, NH Saves, is widely popular. It is supported by eco-warriors, the state’s consumer advocacy office, and even by the utilities whose business model it sort of undermines. There is widespread confusion about exactly why the PUC cut its funding by more than 50%, although a long-standing dismissal of energy efficiency as a valuable tool is part of it.

Small businesses that perform the home upgrades which are central to NH Saves, like adding insulation, replacing windows and doors, upgrading HVAC systems, have been reeling since the news dropped.

“In the past year, we’ve done a little over $90,000 worth of work in this program. For a company the size of ours, that’s a substantial amount of money to lose out of your revenue stream,” said Chris Stewart, CEO of Colonial Insulation and Fire Proofing in Rindge, which has about 25 employees. “This program really did a lot of good for a lot of homeowners, especially with the rise of fuel prices.”

Now, it’s on thin ice.

“Yesterday, Eversource sent us an email wanting us to terminate or delay all of the projects that we have contracts signed and deposits received,” he said. “We’ll follow through with contracts for customers, even though we might get into a fight with Eversource to get paid. It’s unethical at the last minute to terminate a contract.”

They’re far from alone. By one estimate, the decision to slash NH Saves funding put 600 projects involving some 400 employees in limbo.

There’s some hope the decision will be reversed: Liberty Utilities and the advocacy group CleanEnergy New Hampshire are separately seeking to have it overturned.

Whatever happens, I think the affair reflects a bigger issue with the energy world: We don’t pay enough attention to our grandparents’ scolding.

The idea of waste-not-want-not gets lip service – you’ll hear talk of “negawatts” or negative megawatts and “the cheapest power is the power you don’t have to buy” – but most effort and attention goes to generating more power or generating power in new ways, rather than the functional equivalent of needing less power.

That’s partly because efficiency is boring, as brought home to me years ago when covering the installation of what was then the state’s biggest solar power array, a 50-kilowatt affair atop a Stonyfield Yogurt warehouse. Then-CEO Gary Hirshberg commented that recent efficiency upgrades to the warehouse would save far more power than the array produced, but newspapers won’t show up to take pictures of insulation.

However, efficiency is also overlooked because it doesn’t fit into the constant-growth mantra that underpins capitalism. The mantra is flawed – New England’s economy has been growing for years with no growth in electricity usage – but that lesson hasn’t sunk in.

“Some people just can’t bring themselves to believe that negawatts are comparable to megawatts. They think energy efficiency is just a ratepayer-funded imaginary friend,” wrote Don Kreis, the state’s consumer advocate, in a withering criticism of the PUC decision.

If we’re really going to slow down the climate emergency without destroying our economy, we can’t ignore efficiency. We must become much, much smarter in how we use energy. Helping lower-income people stay comfortable in their homes (“want not”) without squandering electricity or fuel (“waste not”)  is an obvious step. Just ask your grandparents.

(David Brooks can be reached at (603) 369-3313 or or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

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