Will Northern Pass raise electric rates in New Hampshire?


PSNH: In a death spiral? (photo credit: CC/Nick Seibert)

In every possible way – on television, in mailings, and on the web – New Hampshire has heard again and again that the proposed Northern Pass transmission project will reduce electric rates for New Hampshire customers. The claim is at the core of PSNH’s case that the project is a good deal for New Hampshire. If only it were true…

As I mentioned in a post last month, the very design of the project as it stands is for reduced electric rates to benefit only those ratepayers that get their power from the regional electric markets. In New Hampshire, homes and small businesses in PSNH territory would see very little benefit because their energy rates are overwhelmingly tied to propping up PSNH’s old, inefficient fleet of coal-fired and oil-fired power plants.  These plants would not be able to compete with other cleaner power sources if forced to compete in the marketplace, something New Hampshire law does not currently allow and PSNH has fought to avoid. (Supposedly, an agreement between PSNH and Hydro-Québec for some power for PSNH customers is in the works, but, if it ever materializes, Northern Pass has said it would only be for a small amount of power, which would not do much to change PSNH’s overall portfolio. Northeast Utilities admitted as much in testimony before the Massachusetts DPU this week and also noted that there is “really little activity” around securing any such agreement.)

As explained in a piece on NHPR featuring our own Jonathan Peress, the above-market costs of PSNH’s aging fleet are causing large customers to buy power from (or “migrate” to) cheaper suppliers. Regulators this week turned back PSNH’s attempt to saddle those customers with its fleet’s escalating costs. But this situation is creating a so-called “death spiral,” because PSNH is forced to raise its rates again and again on a shrinking group of customers – homeowners and small businesses who do not have the purchasing power to contract with another supplier.

What does this all have to do with Northern Pass? The truth is that Northern Pass will – indeed, is intended to – make the “death spiral” worse.  If Northern Pass lowers the regional price of power as all those ads proclaim, it will make PSNH power even less competitive, causing even more customers with choices to leave PSNH behind.  PSNH spokesman Martin Murray so much as promises that result when he says in the NHPR piece that Northern Pass power will not displace PSNH generation. As Jonathan explained on NHPR, that means that the same homeowners and small businesses that will have to deal with 180 miles of new transmission lines will have higher, not lower, electric rates. This is not the Northern Pass story PSNH has been telling.

None of this makes sense. PSNH’s coal- and oil-fired power plants are bad for ratepayers and disasters for public health and the environment. As our lawsuit filed last week makes clear, PSNH’s efforts to prop up its largest plant failed to comply with even basic emissions permitting requirements and have increased that plant’s emissions. Any plan to import Canadian power with PSNH’s name on it should provide real benefits to its own customers and focus on responsibly freeing New Hampshire (and the lungs of millions of New Englanders) from PSNH’s dirty, uncompetitive dinosaurs.

ADDED: I should also point out, in the same Massachusetts DPU proceeding mentioned above, that counsel for NSTAR (the junior partner in Northern Pass) asserted that “[i]t’s entirely speculative as to what the impact of Northern Pass will be on rates in New Hampshire, and then [migration].”  Quite a statement given Northern Pass’s public relations campaign asserting that rates will go down. And we disagree with NSTAR’s counsel wholeheartedly. It is reasonable – not speculative – to expect the current proposal will lead to higher rates for PSNH ratepayers.

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