Environment
5:30 am
Mon May 21, 2012

Energy Efficiency Programs Hang in the Political Balance

Republican are working at finding common language on a bill that would weaken or repeal the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI. They will have to agree on a version that will get enough votes to overcome a governor’s veto.

Repealing RGGI has been at the top of the conservative agenda since the 2010 election put Republicans in control of the state legislature. And this year it may be possible.

Last year, the governor vetoed an out-and-out repeal of RGGI, and the senate failed – by just one vote – to override that veto. This year, Senate majority leader Jeb Bradley, is hoping the House and Senate can reach agreement on what to do about RGGI.

"I know that the house has more interest in it this year. So hope that we can find common ground and move forward," says Bradley.

And unlike last year, it seems that the more ardently anti-RGGI House, might also be ready to deal. The chair of the House science and technology committee Jim Garrity, has pushed hard to get RGGI overturned, but even Garrity says, "this year we’re much more amenable to meeting somewhere in the middle."

Last year, he and others who want out of RGGI were thwarted because there’s a handful of Senate Republicans who think the cap-and-trade program needs to be reformed and not repealed.

"I believe that actually it was begun by Republicans, so there are some good pieces to it." says seacoast senator Nancy Stiles - who is one is one such Senate Republican. "I do think we need to try to make available to some of our lower income people the ability to make some energy changes which saves them energy saves them money."

RGGI is designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Plants that emit too much CO2 have to buy allowances at auction. The money from those auctions goes into a fund that the Public Utilities Commission gives out as grants for programs that improve energy efficiency.

Utilities can pass the cost of RGGI allowances down to their rate-payers. This is what Republican lawmakers have called the “hidden tax” and it amounts to around 35 cents a month on the average electric bill.

RGGI have given out 36 grants worth a total of $31 million. The grants go to municipalities, companies, and not-for-profits who do energy projects like retro-fitting old, inefficient buildings.

One grant, worth $2 million went to a program designed to help people winterize mobile homes. It’s administered by the community loan a group helps manufactured housing communities –more commonly known as Trailer Parks – buy the land under their homes.

The Community Loan Fund’s Vice President for policy and programs Rick Minard says getting control of their park isn’t the only challenge facing these communities.

"So they were all set, but they were being clobbered by energy costs," he says, "and typically they didn’t have the money that they needed to get a loan or invest in an energy audit or heating or to fix up the place."

The Community Loan Fund and their partners used RGGI dollars to do energy audits, replace furnaces, and insulate the roofs and floors of dozens of homes. Once the program is finished, they hope that have helped out more than 400 homeowners.

Carla Bill got one of those energy retrofits.

"I’ve had a ball with it. The cats and I have been nice and toasty," she says showing off her sunny porch.

She went from paying between $1,500 to $2,000 a year in heating oil to less than $900.

The Community Loan Fund estimates that weatherizing these homes will save almost $320,000 dollars every year in the heating and cooling costs.

Other RGGI grants are producing similarly results. A UNH study found that for every dollar invested RGGI projects will save $4.64 worth of energy.

But politically, that’s beside the point.

Corey Lewandowski is the director of the New Hampshire chapter Americans for Prosperity.

"The government choosing winners and losers by taxing the residents and then giving that money to for-profit entities, is not what our country was founded on," Lewandowski says.

No matter how effective RGGI grants are at producing savings, some of them have become lightning rods. Stonyfield Yogurt got a grant almost $150,000 dollars, Dartmouth College got $330,000 and UNH got just over $800,000.

Proponents argue that these were good projects that produced a lot of energy savings and some of which leveraged other grants to multiply RGGI money. But even Republican lawmakers who think RGGI is alright say it’s wrong send ratepayer money to places that are already committed to being environmentally friendly.

That’s why the senate version of RGGI reform would re-direct the money into a program administered through the major utilities that does energy retrofits for homeowners and businesses.

According to Senator Jeb Bradley, "The energy efficiency programs that have been part of the New Hampshire landscape for the last twelve years are a much better way of doing it than, what I think, are oftentimes politically motivated, politically driven grants."

Bradley and other Senate Republicans are a walking a fine line politically. Anything less than a full repeal is not going to satisfy  GOP base.

And people like Corey Lewandowski, of Americans for Prosperity, will be watching. The Union Leader recently reported that his group was sending mailers to voters in the districts of Senators who voted against a full repeal of RGGI.

"I think it is fair, that if elected officials take a position on an issue such as RGGI," says Lewandowski, "that the voters in their district understand what those positions are."

Don’t be surprised if more such mailers arrive in mailboxes coming in to the primary.