‘Tis the Season for Energy Efficiency

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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

Welcome to the winter solstice – the darkest point in the year and the juncture at which we inhabitants of the northern hemisphere pause to consider what is truly eternal.  Among those things, it is generally agreed, are family, love, and the prospect of sleeping in heavenly peace.

To that list I humbly add, in the spirit of the season, energy efficiency.

People seem to smile in the face of the habit I have acquired in recent years of proclaiming Chanukah the “Jewish Festival of Energy Efficiency.”  But it’s no joke.

Most of what I know about the holiday I learned from my fellow InDepthNH.org writer Michael Davidow.  As the 2020 edition of Michael’s annual Chanukah column teaches, back when the Seleucid Dynasty (based in Syria) inherited control of ancient Judea, their leaders desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem.

“A rebellion followed, let by a group of zealots called the Maccabees,” Davidow wrote two years ago.  “Against all odds, that rebellion succeeded; those zealots recaptured Jerusalem; they re-dedicated the Temple (the oil required for that ceremony allegedly lasted for those notorious eight days); and they gave Judea an independent kingdom again.”

Michael is fascinated by the different potential glosses on the Chanukah story as it has passed down through the generations.  Were the Maccabees freedom fighters or were they religious fundamentalists whose views would be out of step with the largely secularized American Jewish community who nevertheless have made sure Chanukah is high on our national agenda for season’s greetings?

It matters not, for present purposes.  I’m interested in the part Davidow consigned to parentheses – the legend that when the Maccabees took over the Temple in Jerusalem they had only enough consecrated oil to last a day and, yet, the flame endured for an astonishing eight days.

That, folks, is energy efficiency.  Today’s Maccabees would reach for the Temple’s light fixtures and swap out the incandescent bulbs, so redolent of Seleucid-esque thinking, for LEDs.

Kids in observant Jewish families celebrate Chanukah by spinning dreidels – small, four-sided tops.  They are decorated with four Hebrew letters that stand for a phrase meaning “a great miracle happened there.”

But it wasn’t a miracle – or, at least, energy efficiency is no miracle.  It’s science — squeezing more work out of each unit of energy consumed.

In the spirit of ecumenism, it should be made clear that energy efficiency – or, perhaps, the lack thereof — also plays a distinctive role in the Christmas story as recounted in the New Testament.  As it says in Luke 2:7, “and she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

As with the question of whether the Maccabees were patriots or zealots, we’ll leave to one side the moral implications of “no room at the inn.”  Consider, instead, the manger.

Was there ever a dwelling place more in need of home weatherization?

Again, it is no joke.  The housing stock most in need of energy efficiency upgrades in New Hampshire are the homes of low-income people – or, to dispense with the euphemism, the poor.

Whether you celebrate Christmas, or Chanukah, or any of the other holidays that cluster around the winter solstice in all of its darkness, this is a yuletide like no other for New Hampshire’s struggling ratepayers.  Just as distant empires imposed a cruel hegemony on the Holy Land at the time of the Maccabees and the Nativity, so too are we under the cruel thumb of distant forces operating at a global scale.

The global surge in natural gas prices, combined with our region’s overreliance on natural gas to produce electricity, have sent electricity prices soaring.  Everywhere, Granite Staters are struggling to afford their utility bills.

The solstice will give way, eventually, to spring and to summer but, alas, I fear those high electric prices will be with us for the foreseeable future.  It is good news that the default energy service rate for Eversource customers is falling slightly, to 20.2 cents per kilowatt-hour, on February 1.

But the days of that rate being 10 cents or less, as it was a little more than a year ago, are over.  We know that by looking at natural gas futures prices.  They foretell a decline, but only a small one.

Meanwhile, people seem freaked out by what has occurred.  Or, at least, that’s the only explanation I have for why so few residential customers are exercising their right to spurn default energy service in favor of electricity offered by a competitive supplier.

Likewise, it’s discouraging to read the news delivered recently by Governor Sununu to a group of journalists that the state’s $42 million emergency energy assistance program has not been receiving enough applications. The Keene Sentinel speculated that maybe people find the application process “difficult and confusing.”

Under the program, which mostly relies on federal funds, if your household income is between 60 and 75 percent of the state median income you may qualify for a one-time credit of $450 for heating assistance and $200 for electricity.   Sixty percent of the state median income for a family of four is about $75,000.

This is no Christmas (or Chanukah) miracle.  As the Sentinel editorial noted, “look at this aid as a tax rebate of sorts. You and other taxpayers paid for it, and if you qualify, you ought to take the opportunity to get back some of your investment.”

In this year’s edition of his annual holiday column, Michael Davidow writes:  “Chanukah is how we remember that over two thousand years ago, the local elite in Jerusalem colluded with the heirs to Alexander to meld the Hebrew religion into their day’s dominant Greek culture. A group of rural protestors refused to go along, and they actually won a war of rebellion to keep their religion safe.”

Let’s keep that rebellious spirit of the season going, to keep New Hampshire safe!  Overcome the confusion and the difficulties, insist on getting what is rightfully yours as a taxpayer and a ratepayer, and above all tell anyone who will listen – your elected officials, your utilities, your neighbors, your loved ones – that energy efficiency is the reason for the season.

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