Every year, NH residents and business owners hear the alarm bells. ISO-New England, the independent six-state system operator, issues a media alert that a hurricane, ice storm or severe cold snap could shut down power grids.
Nick Krakoff, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation in NH, says controlled rolling blackouts are “highly unlikely.”
Nonetheless, the threat of a doomsday scenario leaves some Granite State residents on edge as they recall the Texas power crisis that left 4.5 million Texans without electricity for up to two weeks.
New England’s power infrastructure is not like Texas. Its natural gas pipelines and power plants are winterized, although this doesn’t mean the power grid is without its vulnerabilities. An extreme cold snap could affect its security. However, ISO-New England has contingency plans to ensure the grid’s reliability.
“We’ll lean on our forecasting tools,” says Gordon van Welie, ISO New England’s president and CEO, “to identify potential problems early enough to take proactive measures, such as calling for increased fuel deliveries or asking for public conservation.”
Too Dependent on Gas
A more immediate concern, says Krakoff, is the region’s over-dependence on gas and NH’s lack of investments in
New England has a long history of relying on fossil fuels for power. Oil once played a significant role, particularly in the transportation sector. In the 19th and early 20th century, coal was the primary fuel used to generate electricity. The last facility that is still burning coal in New England is located in Bow, NH. The plant supplies only about 1% of the region’s electricity and is primarily used for peak demand.
After the hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” boom of the 2000s, many plants transitioned to gas. While gas is a cleaner burning fuel than coal, it impacts air and water quality. The burning of natural gas also releases greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change.
Despite these environmental concerns, New England embraces natural gas as a key component of its energy mix, particularly in the winter when heat is a priority. A little more than half of the region’s electricity comes from natural gas and a quarter is from nuclear power. Only 7% is from a renewable resource. “We put all of our eggs into one basket,” says Krakoff.
Gas is a relatively low-cost resource, although in New England, the distance from any fossil fuel reserves makes it harder and more expensive to procure. A global pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also upended supply chains. Russia, the world’s leading gas exporter, cut off supplies to Europe, compelling U.S. producers to increase their exports of natural gas, using their own domestic shale gas reserves to meet the demands in Europe.
Investing in Renewables
These geopolitical dynamics highlight the importance of diversifying energy sources. To sustain a long-term energy strategy, Krakoff says NH needs to prioritize renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.
The NH Department of Environmental Services has studied offshore wind since at least 2019. The state is likely years away from the deployment of wind turbines in the Gulf of Maine. Two years ago, it established the offshore wind commission that is studying how wind farms might affect NH.
Efforts to bring hydroelectric power from Canada, known as the Northern Pass project, failed in NH. “Say what you will about the Northern Pass,” says Seth Wheeler, a spokesperson for NH Electric Co-op, “That would have resulted in a potential lowering of costs in the region because you have this big new supply of power that’s not generated using natural gas.”
The Northern Pass project would have transported 1,090 megawatts of electricity from Hydro-Quebec through a series of transmission lines. It was proposed in 2017, but forestry and wildlife advocates opposed its construction. After two years of lengthy site evaluations and numerous appeals, the NH Supreme Court upheld the state Site Evaluation Committee’s rejection of the proposal.
NH Electric Co-op, a member-owned electric distribution cooperative serving 86,000 homes and businesses in 118 communities, has been exploring other renewable energy technologies, namely solar and battery storage. In 2017, the nonprofit utility invested $5 million to build a 2.4 megawatt (MW) solar array at its 65-acre site in Moultonborough. The solar array will supply 3.5 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity annually for the next 25 years or more, enough power for approximately 600 homes.
A solar array, above, and 2.45-megawatt battery storage unit, below, installed by NH Electric Co-op. (Courtesy of NH Electric Co-op)
“It’s by no means a reliable fix to an alternative power supply,” says Wheeler. However, he says, it offers some critical advantages. Firstly, it gives the Co-op experience managing a renewable energy source, providing insights into how solar interacts with the utility’s distribution system. Secondly, it saves an annual $280,000 in purchase and delivery costs that would otherwise be sourced from outside its system.
Alongside the solar array is a 2.45-megawatt battery project, the largest in the state, developed in partnership with ENGIE North America. The unit charges from the Co-op’s distribution system during times of low demand and discharges during periods of peak regional electricity use. Wheeler says that over 12 years, the battery will save about $2.3 million.
In contrast to the rest of New England, NH is an outlier on clean energy, says Krakoff. For example, its renewable portfolio standard is less robust than its neighbors. New Hampshire requires utilities to generate 25.2% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025. In contrast, Massachusetts must reach 40% by 2030, and Vermont aims for 75% in 2032. Long term, these higher percentages will help states realize renewable energy at lower prices.
Several studies also point to NH’s weak status among New England states in energy efficiency and climate change. According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, NH ranks 19th in the nation for energy efficiency, while Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine rank much higher at 2nd, 4th and 5th, respectively.
A recent report by the University of NH Sustainability Institute and the Union of Concerned Scientists also gives the Granite State low marks. The report points out that the state’s 10-year Energy Strategy “does not make climate change a priority in its recommendations, does not discuss the implications of climate impacts for energy systems, and does not acknowledge the timing and proximity of projected climate impacts in its recommendations or planning.”
Despite these lackluster reviews, some cities and towns are aggregating their own renewable energy sources to curb greenhouse gases.
In Manchester, the city repurposed the former Dunbarton Road landfill into a renewable energy producer with more than 8,000 solar modules. The project feeds 3.8 million kWh into the utility grid annually to support the electricity demand of approximately 350 average NH homes. The project’s output will offset more than 2,700 metric tons of CO2 per year—equivalent to avoiding the emissions from the burning of 3 million pounds of coal to generate electricity.
Solar modules at the former Dunbarton Road landfill site in Manchester. (Courtesy of the City of Manchester)
A new law passed in July 2022 will help more low- to moderate-income residents participate in community solar projects. The utilities will work with the Department of Energy to help identify customers who are eligible. Getting this program off the ground is a collaborative process, explains William Hinkle, Eversource media relations manager. “We’re looking forward to it being finalized so we can deliver the benefits of these low- and moderate-income solar programs to more of our customers in the state.”
Other green energy initiatives are gaining traction in 20 municipalities and one county around the state. These communities have joined the Community Power Coalition of NH (CPCNH), a nonprofit organization that pools the purchasing power of municipalities to manage and run their Community Power programs. “It’s a very good step in the right direction,” says Krakoff.
Hinkle agrees. “Community power programs and the communities that stand them up will be another option for customers to hopefully secure a lower rate,” he says. Customers can also choose to rely more on cleaner energy sources.
Clifton Below, Lebanon’s assistant mayor, chairs the CPCNH. Below is a former public utilities commissioner, state representative and state senator who co-sponsored the first-in-the-nation electric deregulation and restructuring law in 1996. Below says CPCNH works like a cooperative, by operating as a joint power agency managing a portfolio of power supply for member towns and cities while encouraging green energy alternatives for residents and businesses. Lebanon’s Community Power Electric Aggregation Plan is the first program the Public Utilities Commission approved.
CPCNH will procure its own power, says Below. He says CPCNH will eventually develop its own small-scale renewable and battery storage projects of up to five megawatts in capacity. If it generates enough green power, the coalition can realize prices that compete favorably with those from other sources, he says.
One such pilot project resides in the Lebanon landfill. The system will capture methane gas, a byproduct of decomposing waste, and use it to generate electricity to power municipal buildings and other entities.
From Trash to Natural Gas
Landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
To capture emissions from its disposal facility in Bethlehem and turn it into renewable natural gas (RNG), the Rutland, Vermont-based company teamed up with Rudarpa, a resource recovery company headquartered in Utah.
As the landfill transitions from 100% flaring to using the gas to create renewable natural gas, Rudarpa will accept the landfill gas that Casella is already capturing and then clean and compress the gas within its processing facility.
“This is the kind of project that puts landfills down into a category of as close to zero emissions as we can,” says Jeff Weld, a spokesperson for Casella Waste Systems. According to Weld, the project will reduce 78,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, equivalent to taking more than 15,000 passenger cars off the road. A 2020 environmental study reported the complementary use of RNG and biomass-based diesel fuel could reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the Northeast by 19% by 2030 and by 47% by 2050. Weld says the hope is to replicate this process at some of Casella’s other landfills.
The Biomass Difference
Burgess BioPower in Berlin produces 500,000 megawatt hours from renewables. It is one of the last two biomass plants operating continually in the Granite State. The other is Bridgewater Power in Ashland.
Pictured Left: the Burgess BioPower in Berlin. (Courtesy of Burgess BioPower)
In early 2022, the plant was on shaky financial ground and risked going offline. In June, Gov. Chris Sununu signed a bipartisan bill to allow Burgess an additional year selling above-market energy to Eversource with no cap. However Burgess’s prices are significantly below the market at this time, says Sarah Boone, a spokesperson for Burgess.
Burgess BioPower purchases about 800,000 tons of branches, wood chips and sawdust a year from roughly 150 NH logging suppliers. The plant burns the biomass as a fuel source to generate heat, which produces steam, which is then used to turn a turbine and generate electricity. It is the fourth-largest power generator in the Granite State, behind natural gas in Londonderry and Newington, and nuclear power in Seabrook.
The efficiency ratings of biomass plants can vary, depending on fuel type and the technology employed. Burgess BioPower is about 25% efficient.
“That might not sound great, but it is also best in class for biomass power-generating facilities,” says Boone.
She says the plant’s efficiency will increase by capturing and using waste heat to support Berlin’s downtown snow melt system, a first of its kind for the state. The city won a $19 million federal grant to rebuild around two miles of roads, saving thousands on snow removal.
In the future, Burgess hopes to use its waste energy to replace inefficient heating systems in the city’s old buildings, most of which run on fuel oil.
In addition to bringing large-scale renewable energy capacity to NH, Burgess BioPower gives a boost to a city devastated by the closure of the paper mills in 2006. It supports more than 240 jobs and nearly $70 million in annual economic activity.