It has long been known that the cheapest and cleanest unit of energy is the one you don’t need to use, and a group that includes the state’s utilities is rushing to put this into practice statewide despite the scheduling complications of COVID-19.

“We were put on hold in March, like everybody, when (the virus) hit,” said Madeleine Mineau, executive director of Clean Energy NH, regarding efforts to get a three-year energy efficiency plan approved by Public Utilities Commission before Dec. 31. “The whole process has been abbreviated because the current plans and programs end this calendar year.”

The draft of the Statewide Energy Efficiency Plan released last month sets aggressive goals for cutting the state’s use of electricity and natural gas over the next three years. The plan has been crafted not just by environmental groups, regulators, and ratepayer or housing advocates but also by the state’s four major utilities: Eversource, Unitil, Liberty and the N.H. Electric Cooperative.\

If it gets approved, much of its is likely to run through NHSaves, the utilities’ joint efficiency program.

“Some states like Vermont and Maine don’t have utilities under efficiency programs. … We think this way makes sense,” said Mineau, who chairs the Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Energy Board that is overseeing the process. “Asking them to help you use less of (their) product is very counter-intuitive. At the same time there are arguments for utilities to be program administrator. They have relationships with customers. They can target a customer, they can see your house looks a lot less efficient than your neighbor’s. It can make a difference.”

The current energy efficiency plan runs out at the end of the year and legislation requires a new one to be in effect Jan. 1. Hearings before the PUC are likely to take place in December.

The draft for 2021 through 2023 includes goals of energy savings of 5% from the electric utilities’ 2019 delivery sales and natural gas savings of 3% in the new plan.

“The idea is to set the energy saving goals first, then back into what’s needed to achieve them. Previously it was more like: Here’s a budget, what can you do with this,” Mineau said.

The plan discusses a variety of means and procedures to reach the goals, including grants and loans for equipment replacement, insulation and other systems, new types of financing, expansion of pilots for new programs such as using home batteries and programmable thermostats, focus on building codes, and better communication with residential, business and industrial customers.

Utilities would have financial incentives for meeting targets. The draft calls for spending $350 million for efficiencies on the electrical side over the 2021-2023 period and $41.9 million on the natural gas side. The money would come from charges on users’ bills as well as proceeds from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and a payment system by the New England grid for ensuring enough power at all times.

The big question is what this cost would do to ratepayer bills, which Mineau said is a concern of some PUC staff members. There is a likelihood that rates could go up in the short term to cover costs of the program. State Consumer Advocate Don Kreis, a member of the board, has said the increase would not be significant.

Greater efficiency should mean that usage goes down for some users, lowering their bills. More importantly, the program seeks to lower system-wide costs by doing such things as reducing energy usage at peak times such as hot summer afternoons or extreme cold snaps, which is when the most expensive and usually most polluting energy is produced.

“All programs as a whole have to pass a benefit/cost test – it has to be shown that the programs is bringing more benefit to customers than the cost,” said Mineau. “It looks at the bill impact for both participants and non-participants. People say ‘I’ve never gotten a rebate, but I’m still paying into this’ – but they would still be getting a benefit.”

Other aspects of the draft include an “energy optimization” that seeks to look more widely at how to save energy, such as switching from heating fuels to electric heat pump. That sort of switch requires a broad view because a home’s electric demand would go up, seemingly going against efficiency goals, even as its overall energy use declines.

Another change: The new plan would be spread out over three years whereas the existing efficiency plan covered three separate years.

“That allows longer planning horizons to contractors and businesses. You know it will be there when you’re ready to make the investment,” said Mineau.

The financial effects of the coronavirus could slow down adoption of efficiency programs because so many businesses are hurting, she noted. “2021 might be a rebuilding year.”

The draft plan can be seen at the PUC website.

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