In the Dark at the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative

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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

“Over the last few years, the power in Alton . . . goes out constantly,” a member of the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative (NHEC) wrote one of their state lawmakers recently.  The legislator, in turn, forwarded the complaint to our office as well as the state’s Department of Energy.

“Alton is always the first to go out, has the largest outage by percentage, and is the last town restored,” the disgruntled NHEC member continued. “This phenomenon is recent. I cannot remember outages like this in the distant past. The power never went out. It has started only in the past five years.”

A specific incident was the last straw for this disgruntled Co-op member:

“This past Friday night, the power went out at 6:40. It was nearly impossible to report the outage because of ‘high caller volume,’ which, apparently, is the normal voicemail message at the NHEC.

“Power was restored at 8:45 for about three minutes. The crew had left immediately so we all had to report the outage again. It took over an hour for a crew to return. Power was restored at 10:45. I received the restoration call at 1:00 a.m. The recording said the power had been restored at 2:00 a.m. Every restoration recording says this regardless of the actual time of restoration.

“At 6:50 this morning, the power went out again. There was no wind. There was no rain. It just went out. And so began the effort to report it.  . . . It took a crew an hour to arrive. Power was restored an hour after that. I am amazed it is still on.”

The frustration experienced by this member-owner of the NHEC is understandable.  “It is time for the state to step in and do something,” the ratepayer proclaimed. “We pay the same rates as everyone else, but receive less service and, apparently, faulty equipment.”

Our job, at the Office of the Consumer Advocate, is to represent the interests of residential utility customers (including NHEC members) as a group.  We generally turn individual customer complaints like this one over to the caseworkers at the Consumer Services Division of the Department of Energy (which, by the way, you can call toll-free at 1-800-852-3793).  So why am I highlighting this particular tale of electric outage-related woe?

Because the state is powerless to “step in and do something” when it comes to the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative.

I have no idea whether this complaint reflects anything beyond weather-related bad luck for the unhappy electric co-op member in question.  As far as I know, the NHEC is diligent to a fault in responding to outages.

For a utility with a mostly rural service territory, recovery from outages, big or small, is especially challenging.   And contrary to what some might suspect, no utility takes pleasure in, or makes money on, leaving customers in the dark.

But we state officials are all in the dark when it comes to the New Hampshire Electric Co-op.  That’s because, more than 20 years ago, the utility exercised its right as a rural electric cooperative to file a “certificate of deregulation” with the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) pursuant to what was then a newly enacted RSA 301:57.

The PUC’s job is to serve as the arbiter between the interests of utility shareholders and utility customers.  At an electric cooperative, the shareholders and the customers are the same people – so, according to the theory underlying RSA 301:57, the member-customers should be allowed to vote themselves out from under PUC regulation.

RSA 301:57 requires 60 percent approval of those NHEC members who vote in order to make a certificate of deregulation effective.  That’s exactly what happened 24 years ago.

Hence the NHEC’s official response to allegations of sexism and bullying that recently prompted two veteran board members, Sharon Davis and Madeleine McElaney (the former chair and vice chair of the utility’s board, respectively) to quit.  They alleged that the Co-op’s CEO, Alyssa Clemsen Roberts, has been similarly victimized (though she herself has been publicly silent on such matters).

I asked the PUC, in writing, to investigate.

“The Commission hearing room is simply not the appropriate forum to address such issues,” responded the NHEC through one of its lawyers.  The PUC promptly agreed it had no authority to investigate even though I alleged, with good reason, that this sorry situation is likely to impact the Co-op’s wholesale power purchases.

Note that the NHEC did not deny the allegations and the PUC did not reject or refute them.  Rather, the utility and the state’s utility regulator simply said, basically:  This is none of your business, Mr. Consumer Advocate.

Blowing off our concerns about wholesale power is especially galling and worrisome.  The Co-op buys power at wholesale to supply members with “Co-op Power” – known at other utilities as default energy service.

The two board members who quit favored continued reliance on the diversified approach to wholesale portfolio management, as practiced by the professional team employed by the utility for this purpose.  On August 1, thanks to that team, the Co-op Power rate declines to 8.65 cents per-kilowatt hour – meaning the Co-op is, once again, beating the state’s investor-owned utilities when it comes to default energy service.  

Davis and McElaney thought the Co-op should stick with its in-house experts.  Some if not all of the remaining directors think the Board should play a bigger, more direct role in managing the wholesale portfolio and second-guessing the employees.  This begs for skeptical scrutiny.

The Co-op’s circle-the-wagons approach to public accountability, adopted by those who abhor the sexism and bullying as well as those who stand accused of perpetuating those things, is not okay.  I won’t suffer it willingly as the state’s ratepayer advocate and neither should the member-owners of the cooperative itself.

RSA 301:57 allows the members of the NHEC to undo the Certificate of Deregulation they filed in 2000, again by a vote of 60 percent of those casting ballots pursuant to the Co-op’s bylaws.  All it takes is a petition signed by 100 Co-op members to trigger the process.

In its inevitable opposition to such an initiative, the Co-op will surely argue that PUC regulation is unnecessary, expensive, and a drag on progress.  Maybe, but I’d like to see some proof. 

Because the events of the last few weeks strongly suggest that something is wrong at the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative. And, to paraphrase the late Justice Louis Brandeis of the U.S. Supreme Court, sunshine is still the best disinfectant for investor-owned and customer-owned utilities alike.

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