Power to the People is a column by D. Maurice Kreis, New Hampshire’s Consumer Advocate. Kreis and his staff of four represent the interests of residential utility customers before the NH Public Utilities Commission and elsewhere.
By DONALD M. KREIS, Power to the People
If you read Shakespeare in high school or college, you probably remember the apparition in Macbeth who prophesied that the title character could not be vanquished unless Birnham Wood would come to Dunsinane. That was a geographical impossibility – or, at least, so thought Macbeth – who therefore sallied forth to conquer Scotland with impunity. Bloodshed ensued.
Birnham Wood came to Dunsinane in New Hampshire on February 12, via Governor Sununu’s budget address. The subject was energy policy.
Just about as improbable as two different places in Scotland somehow coming together was the idea that our Republican Governor would embrace a signature initiative of the recently retired Representative Robert Backus. Chairman until this year of the House Committee on Science, Technology and Energy, the Manchester Democrat first made his mark decades ago by lawyering against construction of the Seabrook nuclear power plant.
Since then, Backus has been a stalwart proponent of decarbonization, subsidies for renewables, and other energy initiatives of which Republicans are typically skeptical.
More recently, Backus tried but failed to get the state to consider the creation of a New Hampshire Department of Energy (DOE) as a means of giving this area of public policy more prominence and coherence. He persuaded the General Court to establish a study commission to ponder the idea, but the commission itself sputtered and the concept itself went nowhere.
Until, that is, the Governor’s budget address in which he embraced in full-throated fashion the very idea that Representative Backus had championed.
Creating a state Department of Energy is a great idea, and not just for the reasons Backus pursued it so quixotically. Yes, energy is among the greatest challenges of our era. Yes, matters of energy policy are currently balkanized in the Granite State, with relevant responsibilities lodged in the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), the Department of Environmental Services, and the Office of Strategic Initiatives (OSI).
Yes, to the extent there is an organ of state government currently charged with defining and pursuing a coherent state energy policy, it’s the OSI, whose decisionmakers serve at the pleasure of the Governor and are often distracted by the other policy areas in their portfolio. It would be good if the Governor had to appoint an Energy Commissioner who would serve a defined term and thus have an opportunity to pursue progress on energy matters with few distractions.
As the state’s advocate for residential ratepayers, my favorite aspect of Governor Sununu’s proposal is that it would redefine and refocus the Public Utilities Commission (PUC).
The PUC is a quasi-judicial state agency. In other words, it operates much as a court does. The PUC makes important decisions: it determines utility rates, it audits the books and records of utilities to assure they’re kosher, and it rules on key aspects of energy policy.
Should electric rates vary by time of day, to allow customers to save money by using electricity when it’s cheap to produce and avoiding electricity when production costs are high? Are utilities making investment decisions in a manner that is saving customers money as much as possible? How much ratepayer money should we spend on cost-effective energy efficiency?
These are the sort of questions the PUC confronts. But under the current rubric, the PUC must do two potentially inconsistent things at the same time: It’s a quasi-judicial decisionmaker and also a policymaking organization.
As I understand the proposal the Governor unveiled in his budget address, creating a New Hampshire Department of Energy would result in a slimmed down PUC – i.e., one with a much smaller staff – that would shed its policymaking function and focus on quasi-judicial decision-making. This is good for ratepayers.
Right now, when I appear at PUC hearings on behalf of residential utility customers, I am litigating against not just utilities but also a team of PUC employees who appear before the agency as if they were a party. These PUC employees can and do pursue their own policy agenda, as they did recently by seeking to reign in the three-year energy efficiency plan that was supposed to take effect on January 1.
These same PUC employees are also able to advise the Commissioners – the actual deciders – behind closed doors. It is a practice calculated to make the head of any attorney explode. Imagine appearing before a judge, arguing against an opposing party, and then watching that party waltz into the judge’s chambers to discuss the outcome privately. That’s essentially what happens at the PUC.
If Governor Sununu’s proposed Department of Energy goes forward, the policy-development and advocacy functions currently discharged by the PUC Staff would become the province of the state DOE. Some PUC staff resources would move to the DOE as a result. The PUC would truly function like a court, much as its counterpart in Vermont does.
In Vermont, much of what our PUC does is the responsibility of a cabinet-level agency known as the Department of Public Service. Although not named as such (in part because it oversees telecommunications policy as well), this agency functions as a Department of Energy and is led by a commissioner who is answerable to the governor.
Independence from the governor is a good thing when it comes to regulation, but not necessarily when it comes to pursuing a policy agenda – addressing questions like whether we need more renewable energy, the extent to which New Hampshire promotes the deployment of electric vehicles, and how hard we should push to improve our last-in-the-region ranking when it comes to energy efficiency. In those realms, accountability is important.
So, if the General Court approves Governor Sununu’s request to create a New Hampshire Department of Energy, both credit and blame for the policy agenda pursued by such an executive branch agency will accrue to the Administration. Matters related to energy will be vastly more visible, while the PUC will become smaller and more nimble when it comes to adjudicative function it is best suited to discharge.
None of this seemed plausible just a few months ago, just like it seemed impossible for Birnham Wood to come to Dunsinane. But in the Scotland conjured by Shakespeare, an army loyal to a rival of Macbeth showed up in Dunsinane camouflaged with boughs from the trees of Birnham Wood.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth therefore met with a violent and ignominious end. In contrast, a New Hampshire Department of Energy is a good idea, it has bipartisan appeal, and it will become law. There’s my prophecy.