A recent N.H. Public Utilities Commission decision to greatly reduce funding for energy-efficiency efforts statewide could thwart local goals to boost the use of renewable power.

On Nov. 12, the PUC rejected a three-year, nearly $400 million ratepayer-funded plan submitted by utilities to help residential, industrial and commercial customers save electrical power through financial support for retrofits, equipment upgrades and weatherization.

Consumer advocates and others are seeking to overturn the decision, but if it stands, its effects will be far-reaching, says Peter Hansel, chairman of the Keene Community Power Committee.

“It’s concerning on a number of levels,” Hansel said. “It sets back not only Keene but other communities who are doing their best to become more energy efficient.

“Keene has a goal of transitioning from fossil fuel to 100 percent renewable energy over the next 10 to 30 years, and this is going to set us back,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of work to try to use NHSaves more in our area and have had a number of forums for residences and businesses to commit to improving weatherization of their buildings. The PUC is just going in the wrong direction.”

NHSaves is a collaboration of utilities that administer the energy-efficiency program.

Keene and Harrisville have drawn up community power plans, which are subject to PUC approval. Under such programs, residents and businesses in a town or city volunteer to join together and form a group to gain leverage for buying electricity at reduced rates while often setting other goals such as increased use of renewable energy.

Reducing power demand is listed as a primary pathway in Keene’s plan for achieving its renewable-energy goal.

Hansel said that, in rejecting the three-year plan, the Public Utilities Commission signaled a change in its approach and shows that it no longer takes the goal of energy efficiency to heart.

In a letter to Public Utilities Commission Executive Director Deborah Howland in May, Hansel explained how his own company used utility rebates to save energy.

“I know from personal experience that rebates from Eversource were instrumental when my company, Filtrine Manufacturing Company, decided to upgrade lighting, air compressors, etc. to more efficient models over the years,” he said in the letter. “The rebates improved our return on investment. Filtrine also utilized NH Saves to weatherize three rental properties and we were impressed with the results.”

The commission, in its November ruling, said market-based approaches are better for fostering energy efficiency than programs that would burden ratepayers.

For his part, Hansel said he doesn’t think ratepayers would be unduly burdened.

“I do know the whole region would save money by having more energy efficiency,” he said.

Also, if incentives and support for energy efficiency were to dry up, this would harm contractors who are in the business of doing weatherization and other projects that save power, Hansel said.

Consumer Advocate Don Kreis said the PUC decision was one of the worst he has ever seen.

“It is literally moving in an opposite direction from where this state needs to be,” he said.

Consumers benefit in the long run from programs that promote conservation of energy through things like the installation of LED light bulbs and the purchase of more efficient refrigerators, Kreis said.

He said Keene is at the forefront of efforts to reduce the use of non-renewable energy.

“Keene as a city would like to do things like decarbonize and the best way to do that is to maximize energy efficiency,” said Kreis, who said he will seek a commission re-hearing on the three-year plan.

The advocacy group Clean Energy NH has filed a lawsuit against the PUC decision along with several co-plaintiffs, including Colonial Green Products of Rindge and other contractors.

The city of Dover’s Energy Commission filed a request with the PUC that its ruling be reversed. Liberty Utilities asked the panel for an immediate stay “to avoid whipsawing Liberty’s customers, trade partners, and others involved in the delivery of the energy efficiency programs.”

Executive Councilor Cinde Warmington, a Concord Democrat whose district takes in Keene and many other Monadnock Region communities, was also critical of the PUC decision.

“I think it really, truly eviscerates our energy efficiency programs in the state,” she said. “I haven’t talked to a single person yet who supports the decision or even begins to understand why that happened, so I’m hoping that will be rectified.”

Democratic Rep. Andrew Maneval helped form the community power plan in Harrisville, which voters approved at town meeting in May.

He said ratepayer costs associated with the three-year plan rejected by the PUC would be worth it.

“It would apply a very small surcharge to consumer bills to create this program,” Maneval said. “If your only issue in life is to reduce taxes or other fees, then you might be in favor of what the PUC did, but we’re a state that has fallen far behind other states in responding to the climate crisis.

“I think even Republicans realize climate change is real. We might disagree with how imminent the threat is and how to best address it, but if the governments of the world, including state and local governments, don’t start taking it seriously, we’re in a world of hurt.”

The governor appoints the three members of the PUC, which has jurisdiction over utilities. One seat was vacant when the PUC rejected the energy-efficiency plan on Nov. 12. That order was signed by then-Chairwoman Dianne Martin and Commissioner Daniel Goldner.

The last three-year energy-efficiency program ran from 2018-2020 and was $176 million in size. The PUC allowed program funding to continue at that level, pending a decision on the new triennial plan, which was submitted September 2020.

Funding of the program next year will depend on the outcome of the litigation and further PUC hearings.

Rick Green can be reached at rgreen@keenesentinel.com.