The latest battle in the state’s now-annual war over net metering is about to take place. The N.H. House will vote next week on whether to override Gov. Chris Sununu’s veto of Senate Bill 159. The bill would raise the cap on the amount of energy that can be sent back into the regional power grid by small solar (or wind or hydro) generators to offset their energy costs, from 1 megawatt to 5 megawatts.
When homeowners, businesses or municipalities install solar panels, for example, they run power directly into their system. But they may generate more power than they use, in which case it’s sent back into the grid for use by others. They get paid for that excess energy, though at a lower rate than the electric companies charge. That’s net metering in a nutshell.
The benefits of net metering are clear. It helps users provide their own power cheaply. It adds to the total power generated, so it provides some backup. And most importantly, in our eyes, it does both without relying on fossil fuel-generated electricity.
Sounds good, but there are three general issues. One that’s hard to address is that mostly wealthier individuals can afford solar panels for their homes, so the benefit of net metering, on an individual home basis, is one enjoyed by those who have, far more than by those who have not.
Second, it’s such a good deal that, should someone want to, they could actually make a profit generating solar power if they mass-produced power and fed it back into the grid. This is addressed in SB 159 by allowing net metering only for those who use at least half the energy they produce.
When the electric utilities made the argument for nuclear power, higher rates were forced on users to pay for those projects through so-called stranded costs. Now the shoe is on the other foot, with the utilities largely opposing solar and other new renewable-energy projects. But those advances are necessary for the environment, for our health, and for the future security of the power system. At this point, the biggest obstacle for renewable energy seems to be getting projects off the ground in the face of industry opposition. Net metering will help do that, so all else being equal, the state ought to encourage it by raising the cap.
The last argument against such a move, made by the existing utilities — Eversource, National Grid, etc. — is that overall, ratepayers pay more because of net metering, so it’s bad for the end users, collectively.
This last claim is what Sununu has leaned on in vetoing four net-metering bills over the past several years, including SB 159. He’s said raising the cap would cost ratepayers “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Others disagree, including Rep. Howard Moffett, D-Canterbury, vice chair of the House Science, Technology & Energy Committee. Moffett sponsored House Bill 1218 this year, which also would have raised the net-metering cap to 5 Mw. That bill, however, has been shelved by Republican House members’ vote not to extend the House calendar in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Moffett contends the claim that net metering costs ratepayers is based on sloppy accounting practices by Eversource — intentional or not — that charge transmission fees for power it doesn’t actually transmit, and that treat large-scale generators differently than smaller renewable operations.
He’s been trying to get Eversource to explain the discrepancies before his committee, so far without luck. With Eversource now seeking a 20 percent hike in its transmission rates from the state Public Utilities Commission, it’s more important than ever that the company detail exactly what its alleged net-metering losses are that ratepayers must foot.
If raising the net-metering cap would truly raise rates for end-users, this may not be the time for such a move, regardless of the environmental imperative. As they begin to emerge from the COVID lockdown, businesses and homeowners alike can scarcely afford one more hike in costs — a dynamic that goes for Eversource’s sought-after rate hike as well.
It seems unlikely the House will vote to override Sununu’s veto of SB 159, given how many of his record number of vetoes were upheld last year along party lines. House members — of both parties — would do well to compel an answer from the utility before voting on the override.
Lacking proof that the move would truly cost ratepayers more, the evidence falls in favor of raising the cap, to benefit all of us.