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July 17. 2013 10:25PM

Report: 90,000 residential customers have left PSNH

CONCORD — The latest report filed with the state Public Utilities Commission shows that nearly 90,000 residential electricity customers have left Public Service of New Hampshire for a competitive service provider as of June 30, continuing a trend that has put the utility at odds with regulators over the fate of its coal-fired power plants.

PSNH is required by the Public Utilities Commission to submit quarterly reports on how many customers have switched to unregulated competitors for the energy supply portion of their bill, even though PSNH continues to deliver the electricity.

The switch to competitive suppliers began as a trickle in 2012 and turned into a flood in 2013, as more competitors entered the market and began to advertise aggressively.

Nearly a quarter of all PSNH customers now get their energy service from a third party, according to numbers provided by the utility on July 15.

PSNH recently lowered its energy supply rate, but the regulated rate is still higher than rates offered by many competitors. The cost of maintaining PSNH power plants is being borne by a shrinking customer base, which puts even more pressure on rates.

The PUC staff issued a report in June that suggested PSNH get rid of the coal-fired plants in Bow and Portsmouth because they are creating a cost structure that the regulated utility cannot sustain in the wake of low natural gas prices.

PSNH challenged the report, but it was accepted by the PUC on July 15.

"By accepting the report, we do not adopt all of its assumptions or conclude that the information contained therein is necessarily proven as fact," the commissioners wrote in their order. "We do, however, find that the report demonstrates a credible risk of harm to PSNH and its customers if circumstances were to continue unchecked. We find it necessary to further analyze the economic and regulatory pressures facing PSNH."

The commission ordered its staff to contract with a valuation expert "to determine the value of PSNH's generation assets and entitlements" as the next step in the process.

Meanwhile, PSNH scheduled a tour of the Bow Station coal-fired plant for the media on Wednesday to make the case for diversity in the region's energy supply, with coal as a necessary hedge to the volatile natural gas market.

The regulated utility argues that revenue from the coal-fired plants helped keep energy supply prices below market in New Hampshire in the past, and will do so again if natural gas prices go back up. The coal-fired plants have been called on to feed energy into the New England grid during recent days of high demand, due to the extreme heat.

dsolomon@unionleader.com


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