The massive drag on New Hampshire’s economy caused by PSNH’s continued operation of the uneconomic and obsolete Merrimack Station and Schiller Station coal-fired units—extracting hundreds of millions per year in above market costs for its shareholders—is spiraling out of control, and several recent developments at the NH Public Utilities Commission raise troubling questions about what the agency empowered to protect ratepayers is doing about PSNH’s problems.
While competition among energy suppliers in New England is fostering efficiency, benefitting the environment and saving ratepayers money, PSNH’s energy service business, for which it collects its cost of service and a handsome profit, is increasingly looking like a dinosaur ready for extinction. Thousands of NH ratepayers are taking advantage of lower cost, more efficient electricity suppliers, but those remaining with PSNH are being dragged down into its death spiral.
One recent indicator is PSNH’s skyrocketing energy service rate. In early December, PSNH requested a 34% energy service rate increase (to 9.54 cents/kwh, equating to hundreds of dollars extra per household per year) beginning in 2013. At the end of December, the PUC approved the rate increase. CLF is challenging that increase at the PUC on the grounds that, even aside from the fact that it entirely consists of above market costs, NH law prevents the PUC from approving a utility’s requested rate increases when the utility has not submitted required planning documents demonstrating that it has a sound plan for serving its customers at the lowest cost. PSNH failed to submit long term least cost planning documents due last September; until they do so, the PUC is not authorized to approve their rate increases.
Fundamentally, the job of a utility commission dealing with a regulated utility like PSNH is to ensure that prices mimic the results of market competition while ensuring the best service for ratepayers. Thus far, the PUC has shielded PSNH from the consequences of its poor decisions, lack of meaningful planning, and insistence on retaining antiquated power plants that sit idly due to their high costs. It also is once again delaying the release of economic and environmental information that PSNH used when deciding to build the $422 million scrubber project at Merrimack Station. And days ago the PUC approved PSNH’s 2010 plan for its energy supply resources – a plan that utterly ignored lower natural gas market forecasts and impending environmental regulations when planning its future operations. CLF is acting to protect ratepayers from PSNH’s dying business model; the extent to which the PUC is doing so is less than clear.
The PUC is engaged in dockets investigating both the costs of the scrubber project and PSNH’s increasing energy service costs. It remains to be seen whether these investigations will have any impact on the expensive mess PSNH has yoked to NH ratepayers, and whether PSNH will continue even farther down the path of eroding New Hampshire’s advantage as a low cost state to grow a business and a family.