By Donald M. Kreis, Consumer Advocate at the New Hampshire Office of the Consumer Advocate
At the heart of last Friday’s astonishing, destructive, and radical order from the Public Utilities Commission is a gaping hole.
But before leaping into that hole, let’s start with wisdom from media critic and New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen. Because, let’s face it, even though I hung up my reporter’s spurs 28 years ago when I graduated from law school, this column is journalism, at least kinda sorta.
Rosen urges journalists to reframe what they do, at least when covering politics and public policy, so as to get out of he-said-she-said reporting mode. Instead, Rosen thinks journalists should start by asking people what they care about—and then finish by pressing public officials about those things.
Confession: As the state’s Consumer Advocate, I don’t know what my constituency (residential utility customers) wants. But I think I know: They want their electricity, natural gas and water to be as inexpensive and reliable as possible.
Here’s how Amory Lovins put it, in his now-famous 1976 article in Foreign Affairs, titled “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken:” “People do not want electricity or oil, nor such economic abstractions as ‘residential services,’ but rather comfortable rooms, light, vehicular motion, food, tables, and other real things.”
In that article 45 years ago, Lovins saw a nation at an energy crossroads: a “hard path,” consisting of continued reliance on legacy technologies like fossil fuels and nuclear technology, or a “soft path” that would give people what they want more simply and affordably (and without contributing to climate change which, yes, he did mention). And at the top of Lovins’ ‘soft path’ list was energy efficiency—simply squeezing more work out of every unit of energy consumed.
Since taking office in 2016, I have enthusiastically supported New Hampshire’s ratepayer-funded, utility-provided energy efficiency programs (which fly under the NHSaves banner) not because I want to give Amory Lovins an “I told you so” or even because energy efficiency is the ultimate low-carbon, low-impact resource. I like energy efficiency because it is the cheapest way to meet the next unit of demand.
That’s not true out to infinity—but almost. Because New Hampshire lags so far behind our neighboring states on energy efficiency, we could deploy more energy efficiency measures before we would have to start worrying about whether it would be cheaper simply to make more electricity. A lot more.
Last Friday, the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) issued a bombshell order that will, if allowed to stand, eviscerate the NHSaves programs. You don’t have to love energy efficiency, or groove on energy policy, to be outraged. You just have to care—and I think you do care—about comfort, light, transportation, food, tables, and other real things.
Which brings me to the gaping hole at the center of the PUC’s order. That hole consists of the notable lack of any reference to anything that happened from 2014 to 2020. Why does that period matter?
In September of 2014, at the direction of the Legislature, the administration of Governor Maggie Hassan issued New Hampshire’s first official Ten Year Energy Strategy. Front and center was a recommendation to “increase investments in cost effective energy efficiency,” which, the report noted is “the cheapest, cleanest, most plentiful energy resource.”
The 2014 Ten Year Energy Strategy called for the establishment of an “over-arching statewide goal” for energy efficiency. One mechanism, the report noted, is the creation of an Energy Efficiency Resource Standard (EERS), which involves the adoption of specific energy-savings targets rather than simply setting a budget and buying as much savings as possible
The following year, the PUC opened a docket and met the Energy Strategy’s challenge. On August 2, 2016, the Commission approved the creation of the EERS, setting specific savings targets for an initial triennial period from 2018-2020. In particular, the PUC noted the EERS was “a significant step toward addressing the business community’s concerns about remaining competitive in today’s economy.”
A broad coalition of stakeholders, including the state’s electric and natural gas utilities as well as the Office of the Consumer Advocate, supported the creation of the EERS. The coalition then came together again to develop a specific plan for the first triennium, which the PUC readily approved.
Finally, on December 30, 2019, the Commission adopted a new, coalition-built cost-benefit test for use in determining whether a particular energy efficiency program is worthy of ratepayer money. Sweeping away decades of muddle about “societal benefits” and the like, the new “Granite State Test” is based on the straightforward principle that if all ratepayers save money via their utility bills, the program is cost-effective.
If you read only the PUC’s November 12th order about energy efficiency, you’d think none of this had happened. There is simply no mention of it, even though the PUC reached back to decisions on energy efficiency from the early days of electric industry restructuring more than 20 years ago, that were more to its taste.
The fate of the Granite State Test for cost-effectiveness is especially galling. The PUC dismisses it now as “overly dependent upon subjective factors such that any desired outcome could potentially be obtained from its application.”
The two commissioners who ruled last Friday adopted that statement even though one of them signed the December 2019 order approving the Granite State Test, proclaiming that it will “improve energy efficiency program screening by placing a greater emphasis on the utility system impacts,” i.e., ratepayer impacts (since it’s the customers who pay for the utility system).
That 2019 order also praised the utilities and other stakeholders, noting that they had “consistently worked in a collaborative manner and serve as an example of how constructive stakeholder processes can aid the Commission in its decision-making duties and allow parties to reach a result in line with their expectations.”
So much for that! The proposed 2021-2023 triennial energy efficiency plan, swatted away by the Commission, was hammered out by the same broad coalition of stakeholders that had been working successfully together since 2016. All of that coalition’s good and hard work has now been wiped out.
Look. The Public Utilities Commission is not a court. In the regulatory realm, there is essentially no stare decisis—the idea that the tribunal is bound by its precedents. Just because your predecessors—or even you—liked the work of the stakeholder coalition then does not necessarily mean you have to like it now.
But there are limits. The PUC is bound by the case law of the New Hampshire Supreme Court, which knows how to constrain rogue administrative agencies. In New Hampshire, an agency like the PUC can’t make arbitrary decisions and it can’t make stuff up. It has to base its rulings on the evidence before it, even in cases where all the parties are asking for “yes” and the Commission wants to say “no.”
Even if you don’t care what standard of review will apply when the PUC’s order reaches the New Hampshire Supreme Court, you probably like having a comfortable home with light and heat that you can afford. And you would like to be able to do that not just during the upcoming winter but for something closer to forever.
It’s the forever part the PUC has just tried to decimate. But it doesn’t necessarily get the last word.
Donald M. Kreis and his staff of four represent the interests of residential utility customers before the NH Public Utilities Commission and elsewhere.
Back in July our Wandering Photographer was lurking in the vicinity of Summer and Middle streets when he came upon the joyous conglomeration depicted above. “Aha,” he said. “A Fenwick, I suspect.” A little snooping soon revealed that the item had just been acquired by a local resident at the Brimfield, Mass. Antique Flea Market. Like a bottle upon the ocean, an email was sent off into the aether. That was about four months ago. A week ago—Bingo! A reply from much-beloved Portsmouth-born sculptor Mark Fenwick, from his studio Knuckleburg, in the hills above Brattleboro, Vermont: “Oh yeah, there it is! That is it! Wow….,” going on to mention that it had last been seen at…Brimfield.
The Grand Experiment Has Begun
Two Gazette volunteers have successfully completed the first cycle in what could be a newspaper distribution revolution. This happy occasion calls for a recapitulation.
Not long ago a reader in Exeter responded to a call we published in the paper seeking volunteers to help with our distribution. With that volunteer standing ready, we then placed a “house ad” in the paper. That ad sought help from anyone who regularly travels the route between Portsmouth and Exeter. In short order—exactly a fortnight after the ad was published, in fact—we had our first volunteer courier.
On November 5th, the first bundle went out. Those papers are now in the hands of readers. That cycle will repeat itself again today.
In the abstract, an experiment which began with nothing but X thousand readers and the ability to put before them certain interpretable, two-dimensional patterns of ink on paper, has resulted in the physical transportation of a five-pound bundle of newsprint a distance of fifteen miles at a cost of $0.00. Zeeero. Nada. Diddly-squat.
After eliminating distribution costs, our primary remaining expense for papers distributed locally is printing. That bundle of 100 papers can easily reach 250 readers. Our cost per reader, then, is six cents. As we increase our distribution we can drive that figure down to four cents. Eventually it could approach three cents.
What we have before us is an ability to communicate with thousands of people on a regular basis at a cost that approaches nothing—a newspaper that is truly free editorially, and damn near free as to operating expenses. Benjamin Day (right), legendary publisher of the New York Sun and father of the revolutionary penny press, would be slapping the palm of his hand on his desk and excitedly yelling something archaic at the top of his lungs.
We have been trying to jump start this devious scheme for about a decade. Now, we finally see it running, thanks to these two volunteers. In case you can’t tell, we are excited.
We’ll be looking to replicate this arrangement in other towns soon—after we catch our breath.
A Peek in the Rear View
Having invoked the name of the great Benjamin Day, we ought to provide a sample from his paper. A quick rummage turns up a copy of the Sun’s weekly edition, dated Saturday, June 11, 1836.
In an early journalistic form of recycling, the choicest bits from the daily were left in standing type. The paper could then be quickly assembled and printed “for the country,” i.e., the area surrounding the city in which the daily circulated.
It was an early journalistic form of recycling—or a way to wring the last nickel out of the typesetter’s labor. Either way, as a staunch supporter of this paper once remarked, “Better old news than new lies.”
Polish Turnspits: Bears are very common in Poland; the peasants catch them when quite yound and teach them to perform all sorts of domestic labors. These animals posess great intelligence and dexterity, particularly with their fore paws. Many innkeepers have bears, who adroitly turn the spits for roasting meat. It is an extrordinary sight to see a stranger who enters a Polish kitchen, to see a bear seated gravely on his hind legs, and turning with his fore paws, an immense spit, by means of a handle artistically constructed.
– Le Cameloen.
But we get ahead of ourselves. In this edition of the Sun, trained Polish bears were dessert. The main course was murder.
Helen Jewett’s murder, to be specific. Just 22, Helen, born Dorcas Doyen in Temple, Maine, was killed by three blows from a hatchet in the New York brothel where she worked as a prostitute.
The trial of Richard P. Robinson, 19, for her murder, was a sensation. We turn now to that august authority, The Wikipedia, for an illuminating paragraph about press coverage of the trial.
“Jewett’s murder excited the press and the public. The coverage of the murder and trial was highly polarized, with reporters either sympathizing with Jewett and vilifying Robinson or attacking Jewett as a seductress who deserved her fate. The New York Herald, edited by James Gordon Bennett, Sr., provided the most complete (if not unbiased) coverage of the sensational murder. Almost from the beginning and throughout the trial, Bennett insisted that Robinson was the innocent victim of a vicious conspiracy launched by the police and Jewett’s madam. He also emphasized the sensational nature of the story and worked to exploit the sexual, violent details of Jewett’s death. The New York Sun, in contrast, whose readers tended to come from the working class, argued that Robinson was guilty and that he was able to use money and the influence of wealthy relatives and his employer to buy an acquittal. This theory continued to gain traction for many years later.”
What a relief to know that class no longer plays a role in how the news is presented.
If you go to Google Maps and look at the north side of Hill Street, you’ll see a nice two-story wooden dwelling with sunny front porches on both floors, and one very nice, fairly old colonial. Here in the real world, if you look at the south side of Hill Street, you’ll see the backs of three two-story wooden buildings. Their fronts, shown here, face Hanover Street. All are built to the same utilitarian pattern: four apartments in the front, four more in the back. Altogether the three buildings comprise 24 apartments, housing who knows how many people. Their rent is probably too high, but so is everybody else’s. Admire these humble dwellings while you can—they’re an endangered species: the owner wants to knock them down. Hard to believe? Look to the north side of Hill Street. That nice old colonial and the two-decker with the sunny front porches? Long gone, knocked down several years ago. Just like these, they were in the way of someone’s money.