Energy supply companies, trade groups and environmental organizations have announced the formation of a new alliance they say is designed to educate New Hampshire consumers about options they have when choosing their electricity provider and protecting the environment.
EmpowerNH plans to roll out a multimedia campaign focused on electricity deregulation and how consumer choices not only affect the price of power, but also the way it is generated.
Founding members of the EmpowerNH coalition effort include the Campaign for Ratepayer Rights, the COMPETE Coalition, the Conservation Law Foundation, ENH Power, the Green Alliance, North American Power and the Retail Energy Supply Association.
"For the first time ever, we in New Hampshire have an easy opportunity to save lots of money on electricity while also protecting New Hampshire's environment and our way of life," said Jonathan Peress, vice president and director of the clean energy and climate change initiative at the Conservation Law Foundation.
Peress said the competitive market for electricity supply that began to emerge when natural gas prices declined last year is creating a "virtuous circle" for New Hampshire consumers.
"More competition leads to cheaper electric bills leads to less energy coming from polluting coal plants. It's a win-win-win for New Hampshire residents, our economy and the environment," he said. "The more people who exercise their power to choose, the better it gets."
The CLF has pressed for years to shut down coal-burning power plants in New Hampshire owned by the state's largest regulated utility, Public Service of New Hampshire.
"CLF's involvement is somewhat ironic," said PSNH spokesman Mike Skelton, "in that they are supporting supplier options that rely heavily on natural gas, which is responsible for the vast majority of carbon emissions in the region. Yet, at the same time, CLF is actively opposing the largest renewable energy project in the region in Northern Pass."
The EmpowerNH website takes aim at PSNH right at the top, saying, "PSNH's rates are the highest in New Hampshire - and some of the highest in the whole country. Your choice of a competitive energy supplier will help contribute to a healthier environment in New Hampshire. PSNH charges its customers a premium to keep its old power plants - the state's biggest polluters - up and running. And by switching to a competitive supplier, you not only have the opportunity to save money, but also the opportunity to purchase from a cleaner energy source."
Skelton points out that customers who buy the "green option" energy from competitors could end up paying a higher price than the PSNH default offer, especially if the PUC approves a lower PSNH rate in July. While EmpowerNH says competitive electricity suppliers purchase energy from a cleaner pool of sources than PSNH does, Skelton says the regulated utility is required by the state to purchase energy from renewable sources.
"Let's remember that PSNH has the largest share of renewable energy in its portfolio of any major utility in the region," he said.
Skelton said the idea that one supplier is delivering clean energy while another delivers dirty energy from coal misleads consumers about the true nature of the electricity market.
"No one supplier, nor anyone for that matter, can dictate what electrons flow where and to what homes or businesses," he said. "The grid is one big energy pool we all draw from based on our demands."
On the coldest days of the winter or the warmest days of the summer, when the operators of the grid call on PSNH to fire up its coal plants, that energy goes into the grid and becomes a part of everyone's energy supply, Skelton said.
If 10 percent of an energy supplier's customers have paid for "green energy" options, the company has to certify to regulators that 10 percent of the supply it purchases comes from renewable sources, but that has nothing to do with the electricity delivered to the consumer.
"For our coal-free customers, we have to certify that the electricity we bought did not originate from any coal plant; for our pure green customers, we have to certify that the mix was of all green sources," said Emile Clavet, co-owner of the parent company of ENH Power. "It's like putting water in a swimming pool, with many hoses going in and many hoses going out. Once it's in the pool, it's all water, but what reservoir did it come from?"
The alliance also emerges from the economic concerns of the competitive energy suppliers, who've seen the rate of customer conversion shrink as confusion followed the default of Power New England earlier this year.
"There's a fair amount of paralysis in the market because of, we believe, what happened with PNE and its bickering with PSNH. We believe it has confused customers to the point where they're afraid to do anything," said Candace Sanborn, vice president for marketing for ENH's parent, Provider Power.
She estimated that customer migration has slowed by as much as 20 percent since the news stories on the PNE default began to run in February.
"We believe this situation has caused distrust among New Hampshire residents about the reliability of competitive energy suppliers," she said, expressing a hope that the EmpowerNH campaign could clear up some of that confusion.