Gaslighting the Public about the Concord Gasholder

Print More

Power to the People is a column by Donald M. 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

Neil Proudman, Tom Aspell, and Jeanie Forrester owe a letter of apology to every single one of Liberty Utilities’ 98,000 gas ratepayers in New Hampshire.

Proudman is Liberty’s New Hampshire president.  Aspell is the Concord city manager.  Forrester, a former state senator, is the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance’s board chair.

All three are quoted in a recent press release from the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance, in which Liberty takes credit for kicking in $2.4 million to help preserve the Concord Gasholder, a weird, round, and currently useless brick building not far from the McDonald’s south of downtown.  The Gasholder is apparently a historically significant relic of the bygone era of “town gas” (i.e., gas synthesized from coal) and Liberty, as corporate successor to the facility’s previous owners, is responsible for making sure any remaining contaminants from the building’s useful years do not ooze into the groundwater.

The problem is that, Aspell’s salute to “Liberty’s significant private investment” notwithstanding, Liberty is not kicking in any of the money.  Every last cent of that $2.4 million will come straight from the pockets of Liberty’s gas ratepayers.

As explained in an order issued by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) on January 11, Liberty will recover that $2.4 million – the precise number is $2,379,492 – via special surcharge on customer bills that will be spread over a seven-year period. 

“The record supports that Liberty is liable for environmental remediation at the Gas Holder structure and surrounding site,” noted the PUC.  So, ratepayers are on the hook for those remediation costs.  You don’t have to like it, but that’s the way it is.

Liberty, with the help of the Preservation Alliance, convinced the PUC that spending $2.4 million of ratepayer money on stabilizing the building amounts to a commitment funds that would have been spent on site remediation anyway.  To its credit, the PUC reserved the right to taking another look at this in the future to make sure ratepayers don’t end up paying twice – first for stabilization through preservation and again through remediating any soil contamination that is not avoided via the building rehab project.

Frankly, the lure for preserving the Gasholder has never made complete sense to me.  Yes, it is an interesting bit of energy history and, yes, round brick buildings are unusual.  But nobody at the City of Concord, or the Preservation Alliance, or Liberty, has any idea for what to do with the place once it has been preserved and stabilized.

Nevertheless, they persisted.  And I, as the state’s ratepayer advocate, went along with the idea and supported recovery of the $2.4 million from ratepayers in the PUC proceeding.  It was hard to argue with the “we’ll have to spend the money anyway and charge ratepayers” pitch.

And, who knows? Maybe someone will come up with a bright idea for adaptive reuse of the Concord Gasholder.

It’s not big enough for apartments like the ones built at the Kings Cross gasholder in London. But: theater in the round, anyone?  A branch of the Concord Public Library?  Perhaps the Christa McCauliffe Planetarium could use a new home? 

The quotes attributed to Proudman in the Gasholder press release are noteworthy for how carefully worded they are.  He never actually says the money is coming from his company’s shareholders.  He merely states that Liberty is “proud to play a part” in the project and that the PUC-approved plan is “the best and least cost option for Liberty’s customers and for the community of Concord.”

That still does not excuse the utility signing off on a press release hailing the “wonderful news” proclaimed in a headline reading “Liberty Commits $2.4 Million to Preserving Concord Gasholder.”  A media blitz that is careful enough to distinguish the utility’s former trade name (“Liberty Utilities”) to the one it recently adopted (just “Liberty”) is certainly capable of distinguishing between money that comes out of the pockets of ratepayers to funds kicked in by the company’s owners.

The same point deserves to be made about the sentiment attributed to Forrester that “Liberty’s contribution makes it much more feasible to fully rehabilitate the building and find a use for the property that allows for public enjoyment and is a catalyst for robust development along the city’s old rail yards.”  Liberty’s “contribution” is exactly zero.

Perhaps you think me peevish for becoming so offended by all of this.  You might conclude Proudman is entitled to be a proud man for allowing his company to spend time on an effort so untethered from its actual business of providing utility service.

But here’s the thing:  Utilities love to do this.  They love to take credit for virtuous stuff that is paid for by ratepayers and not shareholders.

Case in point:  NHSaves, the state’s ratepayer-funded energy efficiency programs.  Yes, the utilities (Liberty, the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative, Eversource, and Unitil) administer the programs, but they are 100 percent ratepayer-funded.  Not a dime of shareholder capital is invested and, indeed, the shareholders even get a bonus when NHSaves hits its performance targets.

The utilities love to use ratepayer money to promote NHSaves, and the ads typically include the logos of the four utility companies.  It would be nice if these promotions ever said something like:  made possible, 100 percent, by your fellow ratepayers.

(Aside to members of the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative:  Your utility gets a free pass when it comes to this complaint, since its owners and its customers are, laudably, the same people.)

Boastfulness from Liberty at this particular juncture is oddly timed to say the least.  Liberty has not just one but two rate cases pending at the PUC – one for electric customers and the other for gas customers – each requesting a massive double-digit rate hike.  Neither one is going well.

In fact, the other day the PUC held a hearing on a request by the Department of Energy – i.e., the Sununu Administration — to throw out the electric rate case entirely! The ground for this unprecedented request is that Liberty’s conversion in 2022 to new billing and accounting software have made the books and records of the company too unreliable to support a rate increase.

That may be news to New Hampshire journalists (who tend to be freaked out by PUC proceedings) but it’s probably not news to you if you are a Liberty customer.  The same conversion led to massive billing problems in 2022 and 2023.  But, at least Liberty’s gas customers now know that the Concord Gasholder is being preserved and will stand forever as a reminder to future generations that pollution-emitting technologies may go obsolete but rate increases for captive customers never stop coming.

Comments are closed.