Environment
4:37 pm
Wed July 24, 2013

Citing Low Participation, PSNH To Phase Out Green Energy Program

Weighted for Population, government data rank New Hampshire around 12th for voluntary purchase of "green" power, and last in New England.
Weighted for Population, government data rank New Hampshire around 12th for voluntary purchase of "green" power, and last in New England.
Credit National Renewable Energy Laboratory / NREL

Regulators have given Public Service of New Hampshire, the state’s largest electric utility, permission to phase out its EarthSmart Green rate, which allows customers pay more to support renewable energy. PSNH asked for relief from the program because just 148 customers are signed up; that’s about .04 percent percent of their customers.

But it’s a phenomenon that isn’t unique to PSNH. In general New Hampshire rate-payers haven’t been convinced to switch to more expensive renewable rates.

Utilities are required by law to offer customers the opportunity to support renewable energy by paying a higher rate. Every power provider has a different rate, but they tend to add about 30 percent to your electric bill.

But there’s an escape hatch. If not enough customers sign up, a utility can ask for permission to pull the plug on its program. After two years of limping along, PSNH is the first to pull the plug.

Company spokesman Mike Skelton says it would take just 1 percent of their total customers signing up to keep it alive. “We have about 148 customers on the rate right now, so we would need an additional more than 3,500 to sign up by January 1st for the rate to continue,” he explains, adding that it’s unlikely to happen. That’s more than 23 times as many rate-payers getting on board.

And other utilities are in a similar boat.  Unitil’s spokesman, Alec O’Meara, says his company has been watching PSNH’s move carefully and is weighing whether to continue its program. They have just 25 people signed up, also down at .04 percent.

“We gave out flyers, we give customers who do enroll some stickers some clings that they can put on their cars to dry to generate some word of mouth,” says O’Meara, “but it just seems to not really be growing much at all.”

This is not to say that these programs can’t succeed. A report from the National Renewable Energy Lab, or NREL, shows that some parts of the country have way more folks signing up to buy green power. 18 percent of customers in Palo Alto, California, and 7.6 percent in Naperville, Illinois.

And small changes in programs can make a big difference. The state’s second largest utility, the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative, tells customers they can buy renewable electricity in “blocks” that cost $3 a month, and represent about 100 kilowatts.

Heather Moneypenny with the Coop says their program’s participation rate is somewhere between seven and nine better than PSNH and Unitil, depending on the year. She ascribes the higher participation to “the simplicity of knowing for $3 a month, this is exactly what it is rather than not knowing how much of my bill might go up or down.”

Sales of renewable electricity for compliance with state mandates began to outstrip voluntary sales in 2010
Sales of renewable electricity for compliance with state mandates began to outstrip voluntary sales in 2010
Credit NREL

The elephant in the room is marketing. Are the numbers so low because companies aren’t getting the word out about them?

New Hampshire utilities report they’ve spent at the low-end $1,500 (Liberty Utilities) and at the top $75,000 (PSNH) marketing these programs over two years, though it’s not clear what’s being counted in the figures each provided. Most say their marketing efforts have focused on mailers and bill inserts.

But the most successful seller of green energy in New Hampshire, newcomer North American Power, makes it a centerpiece much of their marketing efforts. The option is displayed prominently on their website and featured in videos.

“If you don’t market something you can’t expect to sell much of it, right?” says Kerry Breitbart is North American Power’s CEO.

At 1.2 percent customer participation, it has the best numbers in the state by far. But Breitbart says those New Hampshire numbers are a lot lower than other places. “We’re in 10 states at the moment and we’ve had more success promoting 100 percent green products in some rather than others,” he says.

So, the culture of the place matters, but advertising perhaps helps.

Even though some utilities are wrapping up their green power programs in New Hampshire, the restructuring of the electric market that happened last decade means that unhappy customers hoping to support renewables with their dollars, can take them elsewhere.

That’s something that, PSNH spokesman Mike Skelton readily acknowledges saying, “There are many suppliers that offer green rates, or 100% wind rates or solar rates. So customers still have the ability to go out and support those.”

Utilities may be willing to send these customers away, because in New Hampshire, at least, there are don’t seem to be enough of them to be worth the trouble.