By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Major issues have often divided Democrats and Republicans during this session of the Legislature, but there has been bipartisan agreement on the need to promote renewable energy.
The renewable energy market was growing by leaps and bounds five years ago but has since come back to earth.
Federal and state tax breaks and subsidies brought a slew of wind farm proposals before the Site Evaluation Committee a decade ago, not all well-thought out in this tourism-dependent state, so regulations were changed.
With tax breaks, subsidies and renewable energy certificates available, many colleges, communities and businesses covered their roofs, old landfills and other brownfields with solar panels to cut energy costs and to shrink their carbon footprints.
At the same time the cost of solar panels has dropped making solar power more affordable for many people and noticeably reducing the payback period along with energy costs.
One of the attractions of solar, wind and hydro power is the ability “to sell excess power” to your utility at essentially retail rates. The excess power offsets kilowatt for kilowatt the power a generator uses when the wind doesn’t blow, the sun doesn’t shine, or the water stops flowing.
The practice is called “net metering” because a meter is installed that reads the incoming and outgoing electricity so it records how much energy you used and how much you contributed to the grid.
Electric utilities have not been keen on the idea of what is called distributed energy, small power producers generating their own electricity but still tied into the system when needed.
With growing renewable energy production, utilities have difficulty determining the electric load needs day to day and in the long-term.
Lawmakers initially decided to limit how much energy could be produced and placed on the grid by what are called customer generators.
They set the limit at 50 megawatts but that was met fairly quickly and the ceiling was raised to 100 megawatts and the per-customer-generated power was capped at one megawatt.
That limited the opportunities to profit from your windmill or solar array to residential and smaller commercial generators.
The 2016 bill that raised the cap to 100 megawatts also directed the Public Utilities Commission to determine a tariff or sale price for the customer-generated electricity to address concerns that small solar generators were driving up the cost of electricity for everyone else.
Regulators are still in the process of determining what a fair rate would be and are not likely to decide soon.
A number of towns and institutions installed large solar fields but essentially could only use the power themselves with the one-megawatt cap.
So, for several years, lawmakers have grappled with raising the amount a qualifying generator could produce and be on the net metering circuit from one to five megawatts, allowing for larger producers to join.
Last year lawmakers approved a bill raising the limit to five megawatts, but Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed it along with another bill to continue subsidizing wood-burning power plants.
In his veto message, Sununu said the two bills would cost ratepayers over $100 million over the next three years, noting the state has some of the highest electric rates in the country without the bills’ provisions.
Lawmaker overrode Sununu’s veto of House Bill 365, which provided the wood-burners’ subsidy, but not House Bill 446, the net metering increase.
This year the House and Senate both introduced bills nearly identical to House Bill 446 from last year’s session.
Senate Bill 159 passed the Senate on a 24-0 vote and is before the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee and will have a public hearing Wednesday.
This session’s House Bill 365, ironically, passed the House on 254-98 bipartisan vote and was amended in the Senate last week to look exactly like Senate Bill 159 and passed on a voice vote.
The House vote on its bill and the Senate’s unanimous vote on its bill would indicate legislators have the votes to override a veto this time.
When the Senate passed House Bill 365, one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, noted increasing the limit to five megawatts would help create jobs, and spur an industry that has stalled due to the limitations.
And Bradley said it would help reduce peak load demand and would eventually lower electric costs.
Although the House Bill did not have a majority of Republicans backing it and the vote is yet to be taken in the House on Senate Bill 159, there is enough GOP support for net metering and several other bills encouraging renewable energy development that the state could catch up with surrounding states that have been more aggressive in promoting renewable energy.
Renewable energy was not a priority in the energy plan developed by Sununu’s office which tilted more toward fossil fuel generation with the belief it would be the cheapest path forward.
But expanding opportunities in renewable energy appears to be one area where enough Republicans are willing to join with Democrats and buck their governor.
Waiting for Godot
Bills are moving very slowly from the desks of House Speaker Stephen Shurtleff and Senate President Donna Soucy to the Secretary of State’s Office.
After the House and Senate approve a bill, it goes to enrolled bills, which means legislative attorneys review the text to ensure it does what it is intended to do.
Once that process is complete, the bill goes back to the head of the last body that voted on it. If the bill originated in the House, it first goes to the Senate President who has to sign off and then to the House Speaker who also has to sign off before it goes to the Secretary of State’s Office.
That office logs the bill and then sends it to the governor who has five working days to decide whether to sign it, veto it or let it become law without his or her signature.
To date, only one bill from this session has gone through the process to be become “chartered law.” The bills are given a charter number in the order they become law.
So, the only chartered bill this session is House Bill 453 which changes the membership of the State House Bicentennial Commission, declares June 2 to 8 New Hampshire State House Bicentennial Week and June 6 New Hampshire Legislators’ Homecoming Day.
That bill was signed April 3 and no other bill has made it through the process to date.
The delay could be due to the change in party leadership in the House and Senate and the time needed to develop a nice comfortable flow.
Several bills passed by both the House and Senate are some key pieces of legislation this session like the Democrat’s medical and family leave plan which Sununu has already said he would veto.
Another is the death penalty repeal, another bill the governor has said he would veto as he did last year.
Last year lawmakers did not have the needed two-thirds majority to override his death penalty repeal veto, but this year they do.
Speculation in the halls of the State House this week, was the Democratic leadership would like the death penalty repeal bill to be the first one Sununu vetoes this session.
That way lawmakers will be able to override the first veto Sununu issues this session: a little political gamesmanship to make a point.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London. InDepthNH.org is New Hampshire’s only nonprofit, online news outlet dedicated to holding government accountable and giving voice to marginalized people, places and ideas. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.