More than 8,000 people in Nashua have been enrolled in the city’s community power program, marking the launch of a new way to buy electricity in New Hampshire.
“This is the start of something,” said Doria Brown, energy manager for the city of Nashua. “It’s going to be an opportunity that’s going to create jobs in New Hampshire. And I think it’s really about energy, and energizing our communities to think about electricity and how we use it in a different, new and refreshing way.”
The rest of Nashua’s 35,000 community power customers are set to be enrolled later.
Community power programs allow municipalities, instead of traditional utility companies, to purchase electricity on behalf of residents. With that new system comes opportunities for cheaper rates and the possibility of a more renewable energy system. Community power programs can purchase electricity on a different schedule and using different methods than the state’s regulated utilities, allowing them to offer better prices.
The programs are set to launch in 14 New Hampshire municipalities this spring. Ten of those communities are planning to enroll customers by May, working with the Community Power Coalition of New Hampshire. Four other communities plan to launch their programs with consultants Standard Power and Good Energy in June.
The official start of the program in Nashua comes after the Community Power Coalition warned of possible delays last Thursday, saying Eversource was obstructing their plans. In an open letter to utility company executives, the organization said issues with Eversource’s billing system were the problem.
Clifton Below, who leads the coalition, said though Eversource has taken action to help facilitate Nashua’s launch, it’s still unclear if the billing system issues will affect other municipalities. There could be issues for 4,500 customers in Rye, Harrisville, Plainfield and Peterborough, which plan to launch in the coming days.
“We still feel like they’re imposing arbitrary obstacles that aren’t supported by New Hampshire rules or law,” Below said. “And the effect is to delay our ability to launch in all the communities that we are serving.”
The issue is billing system codes. Eversource wants to assign unique billing codes to each municipality, which it told the coalition it needed more time to do. In its letter, the coalition asked Eversource to use the same billing code for all the towns it hopes to enroll, and change them later as needed, after customers are already in the programs.
Eversource spokesperson William Hinkle said using one code would compromise their ability to provide default electric service to people not enrolled in community power programs.
Eversource set up one billing system code for the Community Power Coalition to use, according to the coalition, but that code was assigned to the town of Enfield, which has 65 customers scheduled for enrollment in early May.
To allow Nashua to enroll customers, the coalition said Eversource transferred that code from Enfield to Nashua, allowing the community power program to enroll residents. But Below said it’s not clear whether the company would act fast enough to facilitate the enrollments planned for the coming days. Liberty and Unitil customers aren’t facing the same delays, he said.
The Community Power Coalition has also accused Eversource of refusing to comply with New Hampshire’s community power regulations “in several broad and significant ways that have created numerous barriers to the implementation of Community Power in New Hampshire to date.”
The coalition said Eversource has declined to help community power programs serve customers who use net metering services, which allow them to sell power back to the electricity grid from their own generation resources, like rooftop solar panels.
They also said Eversource has refused to allow the coalition to register as an energy supplier directly with the utility company. That move, the coalition said, caused a three-week delay in the launch of the programs and cost $2.2 million in potential rate savings for customers and rate relief funds. The coalition contracted with a third-party electric supplier – Calpine – instead of Eversource.
The coalition’s concerns follow a formal complaint from the town of Harrisville earlier this month with the Public Utilities Commission, alleging that Eversource was not sharing information they needed to serve net metering customers.
Eversource disputes the coalition’s allegations, saying they have been working closely with the organization and others to help roll out programs. They said they would be open to signing a supplier contract directly with the coalition under certain conditions, but those haven’t been met.
“We always support customer choice, and community power provides an important option for customers – particularly as our region has faced historically high energy supply costs in the last year,” said Hinkle, the company’s spokesperson. “Our employees are working every day to support the implementation of community power programs in New Hampshire.
Hinkle also said Eversource has been clear about its limited ability to share specific net metering data because of issues with its existing systems. Those changes will take time, he said, and the costs will be “paid for by all customers, including those in communities that don’t have aggregation programs.”
New Hampshire’s consumer advocate, Don Kreis, said under the state’s community power rules, Eversource should provide that data.
“I don’t know what it’s going to cost, but utilities have a long history of exaggerating and inflating the costs of making improvements like that,” Kreis said. “My assumption is that it’s reasonable for Eversource to socialize those costs among all ratepayers because ultimately they should benefit all ratepayers.”
In 2021, while community power was still getting off the ground in New Hampshire, Eversource supported a bill that would have changed the structure of the program. At the time, the Community Power Coalition said those changes would have made it harder for them to operate. The legislation was eventually amended to reflect a compromise between the concerns of utility companies and community power advocates.