July 15, 2024 4:10 am
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Soaring Electric Bills, Market Uncertainty Add to Stress for Residential Ratepayers | Opinion

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by Terry Cronin, New Hampshire Bulletin

In January, the live wire of energy market volatility loomed over the House Science, Technology, and Energy Committee hearings on New Hampshire’s electricity markets.

The sessions were intended for committee members to meet or reacquaint themselves with our state’s and region’s electric policy “stakeholders.” Personnel from every relevant government department, agency, commission, office, and company, as well as the New England region’s transmission operator and its power generators association, were invited to testify and answer questions about their roles.

The committee extended no similar welcome to any residential electric ratepayers, who are subjected to today’s market-warped default energy service rates. While some presenters addressed residential energy rates, no committee member asked, and no speaker suggested, how many former electricity customers now count among the state’s homeless.

When these meetings were held, the Eversource residential default energy service rate at 22 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) had sailed 155.7 percent higher from the year before. Rates for the state’s other two investor-owned utilities were almost the same.

In December, the New Hampshire Bulletin published an Amanda Gokee article titled, “Energy costs could keep climbing amid ongoing market volatility.” She writes, “Rates are already at all-time historic highs – and there’s no indication that new rates will provide any relief to those already struggling with high energy costs.”

Along with high rents and housing costs, the spike in electric rates leaves many in the state facing fearsome monthly bills.

These past six and coming six months of residential rate shocks galvanized Sens. Rebecca Perkins Kwoka and David Watters and Rep. Rebecca McWilliams to introduce House Bill 159. It would establish a five-year rolling average by annually recalculating default service rates for residential electric utility customers. The bill’s legislative intent is to bring some equilibrium to the destabilizing, inflationary economic effects of growing and volatile costs for natural gas to generate power, on top of a years-long rise in transmission rates.

The future of HB 159 is uncertain, but it does not seem unreasonable to put as much care into economic certainty for residential customers as the Public Utilities Commission did into gutting the state’s energy efficiency programs for commercial and industrial rate class interests.

Two months before the January hearings and with the markets roiling, Consumer Advocate Donald Kreis pointed to the issue behind the issue of soaring rates – the problem with the energy markets. In his column for InDepthNH on Nov. 10, 2022, Kreis writes about the warning Eversource officials delivered to the PUC that day, “… that they might not receive enough bids to serve the Default Energy Service load,” due Dec. 6. He continued, “Eversource’s lawyer warned of ‘exigent circumstances’ arising out of ‘a breakdown in the competitive market.’”

Later, at the Jan. 9 Science, Technology, and Energy Committee hearing, regarding residential rates, Kreis said, “We clearly need to take a look at how we procure default energy service.” Using the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative as an example, he told the committee it set its latest default service rate at 13 cents per kWh. When earlier at 17 cents per kWh, the co-op was already much less expensive than every other retail provider in the state. As another example he pointed to the default energy service rate that just went into effect in Maine. He said it was set at either 16 or 17 cents per kWh. He assured the committee the state can do better.

Kreis emphasized that the “extreme prices” in New Hampshire were not the fault of the utilities, but the PUC.

In the meantime, the state’s best hope for better electric rates lies in this winter’s continued record-breaking warmth. What a shame.

This story was written by Terry Cronin, contributor to the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.

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