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Bensonwood, Walldogs and Keene resident honored at chamber gala

Along with the tradition of honoring an area business and resident at its annual gala Thursday night, the Greater Keene Chamber of Commerce added a new accolade to the celebration.

The Windsor Brooks Award for business of the year went to Bensonwood and its sister company, Unity Homes. Michael R. Chelstowski of Keene received the Community Service Award for citizen of the year.

Before those honors were presented, though, Keene chamber President and CEO Phil N. Suter announced a new President’s Award “to recognize something which has a broad, transformative and lasting effect.” Handed out at the discretion of the chamber’s staff, Suter noted that this new award will not necessarily be given out each year.

Addressing the audience of more than 400 in Keene State College’s Zorn Dining Commons, Suter paid tribute to the Walldogs mural festival that produced 16 history-themed pieces of artwork throughout the city, and recognized the immense effort behind it.

“Suffice it to say that for four days last June, this town was transformed in the most magical way,” he said, “and the results of the work of more than 200 artists that came to Keene are visible everywhere and will be for years to come.”

Of the many people involved in making the festival happen, Suter said, two in particular guided the project. For this reason, Peter Poanessa, owner of Keene Signworx in Swanzey, and Prime Roast Coffee Co. proprietor Judy Rogers received the inaugural President’s Award.

Rogers was unable to attend the gala, so Poanessa accepted on their behalf and briefly thanked the community for helping the mural festival come to fruition.

Reagan Messer, executive director of the 2018 business of the year, MoCo Arts in Keene, highlighted Bensonwood’s accomplishments before announcing it as this year’s winner.

Tedd and Christine Benson founded the company in 1973 in Alstead. That office remains open, though the headquarters has since moved to Walpole. A third office opened in Keene in recent years.

Bensonwood manufactures and builds timber-frame homes and commercial buildings using a method in which sections are constructed in a controlled environment and then assembled on site.

Unity Homes was launched in 2012 as a spinoff of Bensonwood, using the same technology but focusing on energy efficiency and affordability.

Standing at the podium with his wife, Tedd Benson hesitated before speaking into the microphone.

“I don’t know if I can do this alone,” he said, pausing. “Yeah, would the rest of you come up, please?” He beckoned the other company representatives from his table to the front of the room while the audience applauded.

“It takes a village,” Christine Benson added.

The Bensons were joined on stage by Andrew Dey, chief operating officer for Unity Homes; Hans Porschitz, COO for Bensonwood Homes; and Bob Oberlander, the chief financial officer for both companies.

Tedd Benson credited his team, as well as the Monadnock Region, for his businesses’ success. He compared the sense of community pride to the values that helped literally build the country.

He gave the room a condensed version of the history of timber framing, which he said was a common construction practice that got a unique twist when it came to North America. Here, he said, people worked with their neighbors rather than relying on a few individuals, and together they erected town halls, churches, barns and homes in a growing nation.

“It’s that spirit that we tried to mimic to build our company,” Tedd Benson said, nodding to the roots in New England. “We couldn’t have done it anywhere else.”

The 2018 citizen of the year, Susan Newcomer, introduced Chelstowski, withholding his name as she described his volunteer service, including stints on the boards for Monadnock Family Services, Monadnock United Way, and Home Healthcare, Hospice and Community Services.

Chelstowski is a member of the Elm City Rotary Club and the adviser of Monadnock Regional High School’s Interact Club. While in El Salvador with Interact, Newcomer said, Chelstowski chose to pay for a child’s schooling there. For the past five years, he’s volunteered with the America Reads Program at Winchester School, she said.

Someone who testified to his work with the school called Chelstowski “Winchester’s own Mr. Rogers,” Newcomer said.

He spent the entirety of his professional career at Cheshire Medical Center, starting when it was still the Keene Clinic and retiring in 2014 as the senior vice president of professional services.

Chelstowski’s wife, Kathy, and their family and friends crowded onto the stage as he told the room he appreciates the chance to work with everyone in his volunteer efforts, from seniors to kids of all ages. He also said he enjoys meeting so many people who freely give their time and energy to others, such as teachers, social workers, caregivers and fellow volunteers.

“There’s just so much good, positive force in this area that it’s just really heartening for me to be able to be in contact with that and see what they do,” he said.

The evening’s keynote speaker was Taylor Caswell, the commissioner of the N.H. Department of Business and Economic Affairs. He lauded the quality of the state’s workforce but stressed a need for training, educational programs and creative solutions to labor shortages, such as automation that could bolster productivity and make certain tasks easier for employees. Caswell underscored the impact of the housing crisis on the economy, noting that recruiting people to the state can prove difficult “if there’s nowhere for them to live.”

Improving economic development isn’t exclusively a state project, he asserted, but also a collaborative effort among its communities. The goal is to grow the economy “in a way that doesn’t destroy” New Hampshire’s best assets, Caswell said, while setting up the next generation for success in what he called, “Live Free or Die 2.0.”

Trump's latest on environment: Reduce scrutiny, speed projects

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump proposed a change Thursday to 50-year-old regulations that would speed up new mines, pipelines and hundreds of other projects across the country, including some that could harm the environment and accelerate climate change. The move also could prevent communities from having much say about what gets built in their backyards.

Surrounded by members of his Cabinet, along with labor leaders and construction industry representatives in hard hats, Trump told reporters gathered at the White House that his proposal will allow highways to be built “in a fraction of the time.”

“We will not stop until our nation’s gleaming new infrastructure has made America the envy of the world again,” Trump said. “It used to be the envy of the world and now we’re like a third-world country. It’s really sad.”

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the president was making the most significant regulatory rollback of his term. “Let me tell you, this is a really, really big proposal,” Bernhardt said, turning to Trump. “The proposal affects virtually every significant decision by the federal government that affects the environment.”

The proposed rules would narrow the scope of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires federal agencies to assess the impact of a major project before it begins and to include the public in the process.

And it would mean that communities would have less control over some projects built in their neighborhoods. Environmental groups, tribal activists and others have used the law to delay or block a slew of infrastructure, mining, logging and drilling projects since it was signed by President Richard Nixon in 1970.

The White House proposal will almost certainly face legal challenges. Bruce Huber, a Notre Dame law professor, said in an email that because the regulations do not alter the underlying law, agencies are still required to report the environmental impacts of actions they take that significantly affect “the quality of the human environment.”

“Today’s proposal will involve changes to the way the law is implemented, and it will be up to the federal courts to decide whether those changes are faithful to the law,” Huber said.

The proposed regulations would redefine what constitutes a “major federal action” to exclude privately financed projects that have minimal government funding or involvement.

That interpretation of the law could make it much easier to build some pipelines, which have become controversial as activists have sought to block projects that extract, transport or burn fossil fuels linked to climate change.

Federal environmental reviews of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines dragged on for years during the Obama administration, but Trump has pushed to accelerate their construction since taking office.

Other aspects of the proposal would set deadlines and page limits for environmental reviews, so that, with rare exceptions, agencies would have to finish their most exhaustive reviews within two years. Currently, environmental impact statements for major projects can take three times that long to complete and can span hundreds of pages.

The proposal states that groups that did not weigh in during the public comment period would have forfeited any right to raise objections later in litigation.

It would also limit the analysis of a project’s full climate impact. “Effects should not be considered significant if they are remote in time, geographically remote, or the product of a lengthy causal chain,” the proposal says.

Under that reasoning, according to experts, policymakers vetting a proposed coal mine or oil drilling operation would not consider whether burning those fossil fuels later will contribute to climate change. Federal judges have ruled multiple times that the government needs to account for both the construction of those operations and the emissions later on.

Bernhardt told reporters in a phone call that the changes would maintain the core aims of the NEPA, while ending unnecessary delays for a broad range of infrastructure projects.

“The consequences of the government being stuck in place are far-ranging,” Bernhardt said, citing the drawn-out process for approving new schools on Native American reservations, upgrading visitor centers at national parks and giving ranchers approval for grazing on public lands. “The list goes on and on and on. The reality is that the needless red tape has, over time, lowered the expectations of American exceptionalism and excellence. And that is backwards.”

Jay Timmons, president and chief executive of the National Association of Manufacturers, said his group had called for “exactly” the changes proposed by the White House because his members’ efforts “should be used for building the infrastructure Americans desperately need, not wasted on mountains of paperwork and endless delays.”

American Exploration and Production Council CEO Anne Bradbury, who represents independent oil and gas operators, praised the plan, saying in a statement that it “removes bureaucratic barriers that were stifling construction of key infrastructure projects needed for U.S. producers to deliver energy in a safe and environmentally protective way.”

Drew Caputo, vice president of litigation for lands, wildlife and oceans for the environmental firm Earthjustice, said in an interview that these changes could be vulnerable to a court challenge because they would remove so many projects from federal review.

“The whole idea of the law is to give better information in advance to decision-makers and the public. It appears that these changes are an effort to undermine both of those purposes of the statute,” Caputo said. “It would basically make the federal government become an ostrich, sticking its head in the ground rather than thinking about the environmental impact of its actions.”

Although the 1970 law is not well known outside certain legal and policy circles, the NEPA compels agencies to analyze thousands of projects across the country each year. These can range from a mining company applying for a permit to drain a wetland to an energy company seeking federal approval to conduct seismic testing offshore or to lay down ice roads to hunt for oil.

According to the White House, each year agencies weighing projects prepare about 170 environmental impact statements — detailed documents that can run as long as 600 pages each — and 10,000 environmental assessments, which are less extensive.

Trump has repeatedly railed against federal judges who have delayed projects on the grounds that officials have not conducted a thorough enough review under the NEPA.

“I think it’s a disgrace,” he said after a federal judge blocked the Keystone XL pipeline in the fall of 2018, faulting the federal government for failing to complete a thorough environmental analysis as required by the NEPA. “I approved it; it’s ready to start.”On Thursday, a coalition of business and labor groups launched a new lobbying effort aimed at backing the proposed overhaul.

“We’re fully supportive and we look forward to the opportunities to have thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people go to work in the construction industry once these reforms are fully in place,” said Sean McGarvey, president of the North America’s Building Trades Unions.

But Hilton Kelley, an activist in Port Arthur, Texas, who has spent decades combating pollution from the petrochemical industry in his community, said weakening the law would have serious real-world consequences.

“The Trump administration is doing a serious injustice to people living in industrial communities,” Kelley said in an interview of the effort to scale back the bedrock environmental policy. “It’s a matter of life and death.”

Kelley said the law has long given residents near industrial facilities, pipelines and other projects the right to have a say in what is approved in their own communities. He said he fears the changes will take away that important tool.

“They don’t want due process,” he said of the administration. “We understand what we are dealing with here.”

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Net metering emerges as latest Statehouse battlefront

With lawmakers back in Concord for the new legislative session, regulations over solar panels are already heating up debate.

After Republican Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed a Democrat-backed bill last year to expand reimbursement for excess solar power sent back to the electric grid — a process known as net metering — the Legislature saw four competing bills emerge this week, all facing gridlock.

Three of them — HB 1481, HB 1402 and HB 1262 — are Republican-sponsored bills introduced as part of Sununu’s new clean energy initiative, which the governor rolled out Monday.

And in the Senate, a successful voice vote Wednesday passed the latest iteration of a Democratic bill Sununu vetoed last year.

This bill, SB 13, would lift the limit on reimbursable electricity from 1 to 5 megawatts.

State Sen. Jay V. Kahn, D-Keene, said the governor is blocking an environmentally friendly savings opportunity for homeowners and businesses, with little to support his claims that raising the cap would make electricity more expensive.

“I think the governor has been lobbied to see the cost side of net metering and has not entertained the savings side from having to add additional saving on distribution and transmission,” Kahn said Thursday.

Kahn, whose district covers most of Cheshire County, said the Granite State’s low net-metering cap makes it hard for businesses to compete in renewable energy renovations with those in neighboring states. He relayed woes from constituents about a 5-megawatt installation in Massachusetts or Vermont costing close to the same as a standard 1-megawatt setup locally.

Unlike Maine, both of those neighbors have highly developed net-metering systems that pay above the market rate for electricity sent back to the grid, with different rates depending on the size of the installation.

The Bay State had 26 times more solar installations finished than New Hampshire in the third quarter of last year, while the Green Mountain State had four times more, according to data from the Solar Energy Industries Association.

In general, net metering for homeowners works similarly to rollover minutes from a cellphone plan.

When the sun is shining, and the home is humming on solar energy, any extra power gets sent back to the grid. That electricity is counted by a meter, and at the end of the month, the homeowner would get a check from an energy provider such as Eversource for their power contribution to the grid writ-large.

For businesses, it works in much the same way, though they more commonly use bigger arrays located on a roof or in a field. These operations run a much higher risk of running up against the 1 megawatt cap than a typical house would.

In New Hampshire, businesses and homeowners are currently reimbursed at the company’s retail price up to the cap.

For Kahn, that’s precisely why raising the limit would help make businesses more competitive.

But for Republican state Rep. John Hunt — who said he uses net metering at his self-described “castle” of a home in Rindge — raising the cap could have unintended consequences.

“We should not be doing [net metering] on the backs of residential ratepayers,” Hunt said Thursday. “The nuances of each bill, I’ve gotta get into it. But at the end of the day, the reason these bills are around ... is that people are looking for a windfall.”

Hunt said he supports businesses investing in solar power to be more efficient and environmentally friendly, but argued they would be unfairly benefiting from the power consumption of everyone who does not use solar power.

Sununu, whose office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday, has pursued a similar line of criticism since vetoing last year’s bill, saying that raising the cap on net metering would effectively amount to the general public subsidizing solar-power investments.

As for the three Republican bills he rolled out under his Innovative Clean Energy Plan for 2020, Sununu described them as “a homerun for ratepayers and the environment.”

But the three bills — which range from raising the cap to 5 megawatts but limiting the total of everyone’s reimbursements to 125 percent of all energy produced in the grid (HB 1481), to lifting the cap for municipalities but letting them sell the power only to other local governmental entities (HB 1402) and allowing renewable generators to sell excess power locally instead of raising the cap — have left Kahn skeptical.

He said he has found no evidence raising the cap would result in higher electricity costs for Granite Staters.

Furthermore, he added that the benefit for those who invest in solar power is both financial and environmental, reducing the harm of fossil fuels that would be used for non-hydro-powered electricity otherwise.

The Monadnock Region has seen a high interest in solar renovations, with Keene’s Filtrine Manufacturing announcing Wednesday that its entire plant is now running on a new solar array and a hearing set in Fitzwilliam on a sprawling new one next week.

Nevertheless, Hunt insisted the Democrats are inadvertently pushing for a handout in an effort to put a dent in climate change, adding that not everyone has the resources to invest in solar power.

“At the end of the day, you’re saving money simply because you have that solar,” Hunt said. “Why should you expect other people to subsidize it? Please use that quote.”