Storm clouds gather for New Hampshire electric ratepayers

Christophe Courchesne

photo credit: l . e . o/flickr

With each passing day, the dire reality of PSNH’s coal-fired business model is becoming clearer in New Hampshire.  The cost of operating PSNH’s obsolete power plants continues to grow, accelerating the Company’s death spiral where fewer captive ratepayers are saddled with unsustainable above-market rates as more PSNH customers choose to buy power from better managed competitive suppliers.  We are also learning that Northern Pass will make the situation worse for ratepayers, not better, and that PSNH and its Northern Pass partners are poised to pull in huge profits.  In just the last few days:

  • PSNH revealed that, as it has begun bringing online its $450 million scrubber project at PSNH’s 50 year old coal-fired Merrimack Station, the bill is now coming due. If state regulators at the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approve passing the cost on to ratepayers, the energy rates for PSNH customers – already the highest in New Hampshire by a wide margin – will go up by at least 1.2 cents per kilowatt hour, or almost 15%.  CLF is seeking to intervene in the PUC proceeding on the rate increase.  PSNH, unsurprisingly, wants to keep CLF out, in addition to any other party seeking to intervene on behalf of ratepayers.  There is no better illustration of the folly – for ratepayers and the environment alike – of major new investments in coal-fired power plants than PSNH’s flawed effort to extend the life of Merrimack Station.  These investments are a disaster for ratepayers, and don’t even ensure compliance with the plant’s environmental requirements – a case CLF is making right now in federal court with regard to other modifications to Merrimack Station.
  • Large commercial and industrial customers with the buying power to avoid the high rates for PSNH’s fossil power continue to do so in dramatic numbers.  PSNH announced that, in September, about 82% of these customers were buying power elsewhere in the market (accounting for 93% of the power delivered to these customers) – a phemonenon known as “migration.”  Meanwhile, more than 99% of New Hampshire residents in PSNH territory were left behind to pay PSNH’s already exorbitant rates.  The scrubber rate increase is going to make this situation even worse for residents – additional businesses will find other suppliers and PSNH will need to jack up its rates even more.  More cost-effective competitive suppliers are cleaning PSNH’s clock among large customers.  Given the company’s excessive and increasing rates, residential ratepayers are starting to vote with their pocketbooks for more sustainable energy supplies.
  • It is becoming increasingly clear that the current Northern Pass proposal is designed around PSNH’s bottom line, not the interests of New Hampshire ratepayers.  As we’ve mentioned before, the large customer “migration” problem and its upward pressure on homeowners’ electric bills are likely to get worse with Northern Pass, which would further depress regional wholesale electric rates and encourage more customers to leave PSNH.   Adding in the cost of the scrubber will only widen the divide between the businesses that can choose other suppliers and potentially benefit from Northern Pass, and the residential customers who are currently  stuck with PSNH. A new wrinkle emerged last week – testimony from PUC staff showing that PSNH’s consultants estimated a year ago that Northern Pass will cannibalize PSNH’s already meager revenues from Newington Station, PSNH’s little-used power plant in Newington, New Hampshire, that can operate with either oil or natural gas.  Northern Pass would mean it would almost never run and that the investments ratepayers have made over the years to keep Newington Station operating will essentially be lost.  This same dynamic will apply to the rest of PSNH’s power plants:  Northern Pass will diminish their market value further exposing New Hampshire businesses and residents to the risk of excessive costs.  Once again, a series of poor decisions and self-interested advocacy by PSNH (at the expense of ratepayers) is forcing the legislature to intervene.

The costs of PSNH’s coal-fired power plants are becoming untenable, and a radically redesigned Northern Pass proposal and other alternatives could help PSNH meet its customers’ power needs more cheaply and with less damage to public health and the environment.  Instead of planning for a cleaner energy future, PSNH is working only to preserve its regulator-approved profits.  CLF will be using every tool at our disposal to force a rethinking of PSNH’s approach.

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