Cheshire County demonstrated its commitment to developing a community power program Wednesday morning when commissioners voted to enter into an agreement with a statewide coalition that works to set up these programs.
Community power aggregation programs, also known as community power programs, enable municipalities to purchase power on behalf of electricity consumers. Cheshire County joins 11 Granite State cities and towns that have agreed to sign on to the Community Power Coalition of New Hampshire.
“The coalition approach to public power is common practice, widespread across the country,” said Henry Herndon, a consultant working with the in-development coalition, joining Wednesday’s meeting at the county building in downtown Keene by Zoom. “There are over 70 joint powers agencies that are serving municipal electric utilities as well as numerous serving cooperative public power entities.”
Community power programs have been gaining popularity locally since they were authorized in New Hampshire in 2019. A number of area communities have already adopted, or are in the process of preparing, plans of their own. These programs can save electricity customers money while also giving municipalities more say over where their power comes from, making them appealing to communities looking to boost their clean energy use.
Though Cheshire County has agreed to join the coalition, which is expecting to be incorporated on Oct. 1, the specifics of the community power program that would be used by the county are still up for discussion.
There are a range of ways such a program could operate in the county, said Clifton Below, Lebanon’s assistant mayor and a member of the coalition’s organization group, who also attended the meeting via videoconference. These include anything from an opt-in program in which communities could choose to participate by purchasing power for their own facilities, or a broader opt-out option that could cover all communities in the region that don’t already have community power programs in place.
“A small town might think it’s easier to do it through a county program,” Below explained.
Gov. Chris Sununu announced a signing ceremony for 10 a.m. today of House Bill 315, which sets out new rules for community power plans, referred in the bill as “the aggregation of electric customers and municipal host customer generators serving political subdivisions.” Among other changes to the existing law, it requires community aggregation plans to undergo a state Public Utilities Commission review.
Two of the municipalities that have already signed on to the coalition are in the Monadnock Region: Harrisville and Walpole. Keene adopted its own community power program earlier this year, which is awaiting approval from the N.H. Public Utilities Commission, while Peterborough, Swanzey and Dublin are also looking into such programs.
The state coalition will be governed by a board of directors composed of one appointee from each member community, which will also appoint an alternate to serve on the board if needed.
Along with voting to enter into the joint powers agreement, the commission also voted to appoint Commissioner Terry Clark, who represents Keene, Marlborough and Roxbury, as Cheshire County’s representative on the board, with County Administrator Chris Coates being approved as an alternate.
But while commissioners were unanimous in their decision to enter into the agreement, one of them had some questions. Commissioner Jack Wozmak, who represents Chesterfield, Hinsdale, Surry, Swanzey, Walpole, Westmoreland and Winchester, asked what it would mean for customers if the county implements a community power program.
“What’s the impact on the customers, how do they know where their energy is coming from, when do they begin to see kind of the benefit of this bargain?” Wozmak asked. “... What is the county doing and what is our connection, ultimately, to the customers?”
Samuel Golding, president of Community Choice Partners, a consulting firm that works with governments to initiate community power programs, explained that customers’ experience of paying for electricity would look much the same. Bills would continue to be issued by the electric utility, which is Eversource, locally, he said.
Typically, an electric bill will contain two charges: one for delivery and one for supply. Generally, communities using a community power program still rely on the utility’s infrastructure to deliver power, he said; what changes is the supplier, which in this case would become Cheshire County.