The two biggest stories in energy for Granite Staters this past week were both good news, though with bad news shadows.
First, in a story of the man-bites-dog variety, energy giant Eversource, the state’s largest electric utility, asked the N.H. Public Utilities Commission for permission to lower its supply rate by about 11 percent for residential and smaller business customers. Because the delivery part of the utility bill would be unchanged, costs would actually drop about 7 percent overall.
A power supplier asking to charge less? Sign us up for that, however small the percentage. The caveat, of course, is that Eversource just months ago made the opposite request, to almost double its supply rate. So customers’ bills this winter will still be much higher than a year ago.
And the reason for both the drastic increase and modest reduction is the same — the volatility of the energy market, combined with the lack of flexibility for utilities. The volatility, especially the recent spike in prices, owes much to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent effect on natural gas supplied by both countries. National policy has made it harder to react to the fallout from that shortage.
That volatility has also hit the Granite State particularly hard due to poor foresight by the state’s current administration, which has been beholden to fossil-fuel-driven suppliers. Under Gov. Chris Sununu, New Hampshire has fallen far behind other New England states in shifting toward renewable resources. Sununu’s handpicked energy officials also torpedoed the state’s energy-efficiency plan a year ago, setting back efforts that even the utilities supported.
On the national front, President Biden has taken some steps to reduce energy prices — notably dipping into the nation’s strategic oil reserve multiple times to make up for global cutbacks in production.
But one bottleneck in regional energy supply is in liquified natural gas. Because of a relative lack of natural gas pipeline capacity in the region, liquified natural gas (LNG) is mainly delivered by ship. But there are no U.S.-flagged, LNG carrier ships, and federal law prohibits a foreign ship from carrying LNG from one U.S. port to another, state Consumer Advocate Don Kreis told The Sentinel’s Rick Green.
Congress has been reticent about scrapping the Jones Act, a century-old maritime law that requires goods shipped between U.S. ports to be transported on ships that are built, owned and operated by United States citizens or permanent residents. It was meant to protect the American shipping industry but now inhibits the movement of gas from refineries to where the demand is. In 2021, Biden exempted two specific foreign firms just so ships could bring oil products to the East Coast from the Gulf of Mexico. He could do the same, or more; even better, Congress could undo the act, which now protects just a handful of companies, at the expense of all.
State officials rethinking their commitment to costly and damaging fossil fuels would help as well. But don’t hold your breath. Eversource is among Sununu’s biggest financial supporters and is heavily invested in fossil fuels.
Lastly, Granite Staters on the whole ought to more carefully consider the all-too-often knee-jerk opposition to major energy infrastructure projects. No one wants a pipeline or high-tension wires running through their neighborhood, but shouting down every such project — even, as in the case of the lightning-rod Northern Pass project, when they would transmit renewable hydroelectric power — has helped put us in this bind.
Which brings us to the other major good news in energy this week. Actually, tremendous news, potentially: nuclear fusion.
For decades, scientists have sought this holy grail of energy, a safe alternative to the nuclear fission that’s powered reactors such as the now-mothballed Vermont Yankee. Fusion relies on smashing two atoms together at incredibly high speeds and transforming the energy from that reaction into electricity that can power homes and offices without emitting carbon into the air or dumping radioactive waste into the environment.
Tuesday, the Energy Department announced a breakthrough: Researchers for the first time were able to produce a positive net energy from fusion. That’s huge, because it takes fusion from the theoretical to the concrete. It can be done.
But that’s a long way from shifting it to the practical. Perhaps decades more experimentation — and lobbying for the funding to do it — lie ahead. And you can bet those fossil-fuel giants will be working to maintain their lion’s share of the energy market all the way.
Still, a (someday) safe, (someday) cheap and renewable source of energy is now closer, maybe (someday) making the vagaries of the current energy market a relic of the past.
Doesn’t that leave you feeling warmer already?