Power to the People is a column by Donald M. 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
FOR SALE: 175,393 round pieces of wood, most about 35 feet long. Motivated seller! Serious offers only.
Normally I leave transactions like this to Craig’s List, but in this case I am trying to protect a few hundred thousand people – specifically, the residential customers of Eversource, the state’s biggest electric utility.
As with any deals of this magnitude, there are a few sticky details. For one thing, you don’t actually get 175,393 pieces of wood – you’ll take title to 3,844 of them, along with a 50 percent interest in 343,098 others. The other half belongs to Eversource.
And, frankly, I don’t know what you would do with all of that wood anyway. It’s scattered all over Eversource’s service territory, from the Massachusetts border to the tippy top of Coos County. They’re prone to attack by bugs and fungi, and thus treated with chemicals.
Oh, and did I mention all the wires attached to this wood? Yes, we are talking about utility poles.
Once upon a time, New Hampshire was dominated by two mega-utilities. Public Service Company of New Hampshire (PSNH) provided electricity, and Verizon was the big phone company. They shared ownership and maintenance responsibility for the utility poles that made it all possible.
Then came mergers, bankruptcies, and waves of technological change. PSNH became part of the Eversource empire that includes most of Massachusetts and Connecticut. Landline telephone service lost its monopoly thanks to competition from mobile phones and cable TV providers. Verizon fled the jurisdiction, selling out to Fairpoint, which eventually sold out to Consolidated Communications.
Now Consolidated wants out of the pole business altogether in the land of Eversource New Hampshire. So it has struck a deal with Eversource. The electric distribution company will own 100 percent of all the poles, assume responsibility for their maintenance, and – as with all things in the public utility realm – ratepayers would get the bill.
The deal requires the approval of the Public Utilities Commission. A hearing is scheduled for the ides of March, an auspicious day.
Maybe you’re wondering: What’s the price? What cost to electric ratepayers for the privilege of having PSNH take all of those poles over from the phone company as the landline telecom business continues to slide into obsolescence?
I know the answer. But I can’t give it to you.
The sexy details of the deal are on file with the PUC. Those details include the purchase price, and the terms on which Consolidated and Eversource are settling a dispute over the fact that Consolidated stopped paying the electric company for its share of “vegetation management” in 2019. (“Vegetation management” is utility talk for pruning back trees that knock down wires.)
And, by the way: The customer-owned New Hampshire Electric Cooperative has a similar dispute festering with Consolidated. But rather than making a deal, the Co-op is suing Consolidated.
The PUC is a state agency. And here in New Hampshire we have RSA 91-A – the Right-to-Know Law – which says the people have a right to find what their government is up to. Among other things, under RSA 91-A documents must be available for public inspection and copying.
But Eversource and Consolidated want the PUC to treat the terms of their deal as secret. They’re relying on a disclosure exemption in the Right-to-Know Law for “confidential, commercial, or financial information.” A motion for confidential treatment is pending at the PUC.
What mockery this makes of our state’s government transparency statute!
The New Hampshire Supreme Court has repeatedly said that the way to apply the disclosure exemptions in the Right-to-Know Law is via a balancing test. The idea is to assess any legitimate privacy interests at stake and balance them against the public’s interest in disclosure.
This one flunks the balancing test in every way possible.
First, any privacy interests run from minuscule to none. In seeking confidentiality at the PUC, companies like Eversource and Consolidated typically whine that public disclosure of deals to be paid for by ratepayers will impede their ability to negotiate similar deals in the future.
Baloney. Eversource won’t have any more big piles of poles to buy in New Hampshire. Future ratepayer-funded pole purchases elsewhere are not New Hampshire’s concern. And, frankly, Consolidated deserves no quarter from the PUC when it comes to privacy interests given its dubious record when it comes to the phone company’s share of pole maintenance costs.
Meanwhile, the public’s interest in disclosure is at its zenith in these circumstances. Ratepayers will pay the costs of this transaction, with little or no risk to Eversource shareholders. In other words, what the government is up to here is deciding what customers must fork over in exchange for extracting Consolidated from its physical entanglement with the electricity grid in the Eversource territory.
The math is simple. A mighty interest in disclosure minus a minuscule privacy interest equals records the PUC must make available for inspection and copying.
Oh, one more thing. The whole system the PUC has rigged up via its procedural rules, which allows companies to request confidential treatment under RSA 91-A, is actually illegal under the Right-to-Know Law. RSA 91-A is a disclosure statute, not a privacy statute. No company – indeed, no person – should have standing to force a government agency to keep something secret under RSA 91-A.
Admittedly, that’s an argument nobody has ever had the nerve to make at the New Hampshire Supreme Court. As a former journalist who used to work for Associated Press and then the late, great independent newsweekly Maine Times, that drives me nuts.
Meanwhile, I am as eager as anyone to get Consolidated out of the business of owning utility poles in New Hampshire. But this is a bad deal. The Department of Energy opposes it, the Office of the Consumer Advocate opposes it, and NECTA – the New England Cable and Telecommunications Association, whose members also need to use those poles – is also concerned.
I just can’t tell you how much – in dollar terms –we all dislike it. Because, by statute, I’m obliged to abide by the PUC’s confidentiality determinations as the state’s Consumer Advocate. But I can say this much: If you think paying for these poles on the terms agreed to by Eversource and Consolidated is a good deal, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you next.