The most interesting energy thing happening in New Hampshire right now isn’t due to cool tech or federal money, it’s part of that terribly ho-hum tedious topic, local governance.
Actually, it’s more ho-hum than that: It’s county governance.
Compared to most states, New Hampshire treats counties like an afterthought. It’s like there was a meeting when the Granite State was created but the county government representatives overslept. By the time they arrived, state and local governments had divvied up the interesting stuff – “I’ll take police, you can have wildlife” – leaving only scraps like retirement homes and jails. Nobody pays much attention to counties.
So I was surprised to learn that Cheshire County in the southwest corner has done something really cool by creating New Hampshire’s first county-wide community power program.
Quick background: Community power is a relatively new program enabled by the legislature three years ago, apparently when all the representatives smitten with the electric-utility model of their youth were taking a nap. It enables towns and cities to buy electricity themselves on the open market instead of taking whatever their local utility offers, which gives them the possibility of getting cheaper power as well as electricity from less-polluting sources.
Residents can switch to the new local power program or stick with the utility; it’s up to individuals. Consider it the buying-electricity chapter in the local control handbook.
Community power is an example of how the traditional electricity business – energy gets created in a few big buildings and sent to you by a monopoly that charges whatever executives decide it costs – is being reinvented due to distributed energy like solar power, wind turbines and batteries, as well as “smart” tech that allows more demand-side control. It’s exciting and fun and potentially profitable but also scary and worrisome and potentially expensive, which is why so many folks are trying to stop it.
Anyway, a couple dozen municipalities have created their own community power policies or are in the process of getting on board. Concord and Bow are both looking into it.
But the process of creating community power is kind of complicated. That’s a problem if you’re a small town without much in the way of full-time staff, a situation that describes at least half of the state’s 200-and-some-odd communities. Doing it with volunteers only can be a tough slog.
Enter county-level community power, which was enabled in the 2019 law but mostly overlooked because counties are mostly overlooked.
By adopting it, Cheshire County doesn’t plan for its county government to buy power from the open market; rather, they’ve made it much easier for towns in the county to do so.
Before this, a town in Cheshire County had to go through a long process of public hearings, town meeting and Public Utilities Commission regulatory approval to create its community power program. But now Cheshire County government has done most of that, so if a town wants to get community power they just need a vote of the select board.
“The county has taken the administrative and regulatory compliance lift,” said Henry Herndon, a director at the Community Power Coalition of New Hampshire. “I think it’s going to be attractive for a lot of towns. … There’s a lot of towns with 1,000 maybe 2,000 people, and this allows them to (get community power) with much greater efficiency.”
Three small towns in the county are going ahead under the country umbrella and at least one more is in the process of deciding. Places that have already created their own community power program, like Keene, are not affected; they can stick with it or get rid of it as they choose, just as was always the case.
“I would hope it is replicated across the state. It would save a lot of people a lot of time and energy,” said Herndon.
Further, he noted, “Counties have a birds-eye view and can coordinate regional collaboration and regional project development,” even something like county-specific power generation such as a big solar farm that feeds into a number of towns.
Frankly, I don’t see why the other nine New Hampshire counties shouldn’t immediately follow Cheshire County’s lead. This isn’t government requiring anybody to do anything; it doesn’t even encourage them to do it. It’s government making it easier to do something if local people want to do it.
And if there’s anything “live free or die” lawmakers should be interested in accomplishing, it’s making things easier.