Henry Herndon: Local decisions will help shape state's energy future
Editor's note: The following op-ed first appeared in The Concord Monitor.
In order to change a zoning ordinance, enter into a lease agreement, create a law to leash dogs or replace Engine 1 for the fire department, local leaders in small New Hampshire towns have a common challenge: secure the approval of citizens who attend, deliberate and vote on each article at town meeting.
At town meeting this month, energy projects can be found among the articles being deliberated. More and more citizens in a growing number of communities are making decisions about the energy futures for their towns and schools. Thanks to clean energy innovations in the marketplace, thanks to a growing body of data on energy and New Hampshire and because of some state incentives available to local governments, citizens will find themselves debating energy projects and energy policies for their towns in every corner of the state in 2018.
Clean energy innovations: State-of-the-art boiler technology allowed the Rockingham County Complex to switch fuel from oil to wood chips, and as a result reduced emissions into the air, kept energy dollars local and saved taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. Today the Nashua Regional Planning Commission and partners developed the free “Renewable Energy Tool Belt” to help community leaders across the state evaluate potential renewable energy systems best for their community needs.
Good energy data lead to informed local decisions: Some schools are too hot, others too cold. More are adding air conditioning to their energy loads. Because of a benchmarking study done several years ago we know the average New Hampshire school spends $241 per student on energy annually. Understanding there were savings to be had, dozens of towns and schools in 2014 made $3 million in cost sharing commitments on almost 200 energy efficiency projects, and received incentive funding from the state of a total of $1.2 million through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Energy audits, contributed by utilities working in partnership, show school boards how to make classrooms more comfortable and reduce energy costs. After careful study the John Stark Regional School District board determined they will save money through carefully planned energy retrofits. This month they will ask voters to approve a tax-neutral lease agreement that paves the way for a comprehensive energy solutions approach that includes renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies.
State clean energy policies: Local governments will face higher fossil fuel prices in the future – of this we’re certain. Solving local energy challenges has become easier and less expensive because the marketplace is demanding innovation and improved technologies – the trends are unmistakable. Uncertainty remains largely in the whims of the Legislature, and the whipsaw nature in which lawmakers have addressed energy policies related to renewable and distributed energy and energy efficiency.
Local energy projects can benefit under a working Renewable Portfolio Standard. A $1.2 million renewable energy grant from the Public Utilities Commission helped the town of Peterborough construct a solar array to offset electricity used to operate the wastewater treatment plant – and save between $25,000 and $50,000 per year in energy costs. However, House lawmakers just approved a bill to freeze the RPS, which the Senate will need to address.
The N.H. Public Utilities Commission recently approved an additional $100 million in funding for energy efficiency programs across New Hampshire through 2020; the approval comes after the utilities, the consumer advocate and stakeholders representing low-income, business and residential energy users arrived at a plan and road map right for New Hampshire. However, some state lawmakers find this objectionable and have promised to fight it.
Energy issues create challenges and opportunities every year for local decision makers. Challenges are not only in cost, but also in the vagaries of the State House. Opportunities lie in the marketplace for cost-saving technologies that are competing with traditional monopolistic energy services. Favorable state policies can help to cultivate these market-based alternatives, provided those policies remain in place. A member of the general court should be tethered to the citizens he or she represents, not to ideology. If town meeting is the best example of true participatory democracy, lawmakers should take heed of the clean energy decisions made locally and support these decisions by setting a course for New Hampshire’s clean energy future. And then stick to it.