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Greenhouse gas issue fires up New Hampshire Energy Summit

New Hampshire Union Leader

October 22. 2012 7:11PM

CONCORD - New Hampshire's participation in a multi-state effort to reduce greenhouse gases was the most contentious issue at an energy summit in Concord on Monday.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cooperative effort among seven Mid-Atlantic states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, drew praise from a former assistant energy secretary, the president of the state's retail merchants association and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Maggie Hassan.

The law was criticized by independent power generators, a Public Utilities Commissioner and Republican gubernatorial candidate Ovide Lamontagne.

Republicans in the House of Representatives last year tried to pull New Hampshire out of the program, but a bill to end the state's participation in RGGI failed in the state Senate.

Under RGGI, power plants in the seven states have to limit their carbon dioxide emissions to meet state standards, or purchase emission allowances through auctions that enable them to exceed the limits. States invest the money in programs that promote energy efficiency, renewable energy and other clean energy technologies. Electric service providers pass the cost along to consumers in their electric bills.

The philosophical divide that separates RGGI proponents and opponents was evident at the New Hampshire Energy Summit, when opening speaker Susan Tierney, former Assistant Secretary of Energy for Policy, spoke in support of the program and was challenged from the audience by state PUC Commissioner Michael D. Harrington.

'I take issue with your assumptions,' he said. 'Taking money from ratepayers and giving it to the PUC to distribute assumes that the PUC is smarter than the collective people of New Hampshire. I think it's best to leave that money in the hands of the people of New Hampshire. They are much smarter than I am, and know better what to do with it,' he said.

Tierney had just completed a favorable review of program statistics, which she said demonstrated that RGGI has caused a short-term increase of less than 1 percent on average customers bills, and over the long run will be 'a clear gain for consumers of more than $11 billion' through jobs created and energy saved.

Representatives of independent energy suppliers, who took the podium later in the morning, were unconvinced. Michael Hachey, vice president with TransCanada Power Marketing, pointed to a chart of costs per kilowatt hour that showed New Hampshire with the fifth highest cost in the nation, at 14.74 cents per kwh.

'Every time you hear about a government program,' he said, 'it's a fair question to ask, 'Is it going to move me up that chart or down that chart?' Most move you up that chart.'

Lamontage, a known opponent of RGGI, made a passing reference, telling the crowd of approximately 175 energy professionals gathered at the Holiday Inn, 'We need to do what we can to eliminate cap and tax schemes that are driving energy costs up.'

Hassan said she was proud to have been a co-sponsor of the legislation when in the state Senate.

Nancy C. Kyle, president and CEO of the state Retail Merchants Association, took advantage of her opportunity as an event sponsor to state her group's position when introducing one of the speakers: 'One of the things we've been very grateful for are the small- to medium-sized grants to introduce energy efficiencies and make our buildings more efficient, thanks to RGGI.'

She introduced five or six retail merchants in the audience who had used RGGI grants or rebates for energy-efficiency projects at their businesses.

Tierney also presented a review of New Hampshire energy costs, she said, to 'shatter the myth' that the state has some of the highest electric bills in the country. She said that while the costs per kilowatt hour are among the highest, the total average electric bill in New Hampshire is in the middle of the pack of 50 states.

She said low natural gas prices are having an effect across the energy market, and are likely to stay low for the foreseeable future - a trend reflected by other speakers, many of whom encouraged expansion of natural gas delivery systems throughout the state.

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., reported on efforts by the military to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, for both economic and national security reasons. She predicted that the military, which accounts for 93 percent of energy use by the federal government, will be a major factor in the development of renewable energy technologies in the future.

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