New Hampshire is facing a new reality of increasing energy development from projects such as wind farms, pipelines and high-voltage transmission lines. As a state we need to be diversifying and increasing our energy resources with conventional sources, with clean and renewable energy, and local distributed energy systems. We should also invest in energy conservation and efficiency. Further, our energy siting process must ensure benefits to our communities, our natural resources and the state as a whole. The decision-making process governing whether and where to site these projects has rightly become an issue of concern for residents and legislators alike.
Last spring, the chairman of the state’s energy siting board — the Site Evaluation Committee — told a House legislative committee the current process was close to a “breaking point,” and reforms were needed in order to best serve the public and project developers.
In response, the Legislature passed SB 99, requiring the Office of Energy and Planning to conduct a public stakeholder process to identify the issues of greatest concern, examine possible solutions, outline areas of agreement and issue a report that would assist the Legislature in identifying reforms to improve the current siting process.
Hundreds of New Hampshire citizens, business leaders and local elected officials participated, offering their distinctive perspectives. In December, the Office of Energy and Planning released its comprehensive report — providing policymakers with a road map to bring more efficiency, transparency and public participation into New Hampshire’s energy facility-siting process.
In response to this report, we will introduce a bipartisan amendment to SB 245 that seeks moderate but meaningful reforms to the state’s siting process. Our amendment has three specific goals: strengthen public participation; guarantee adequate resources; and ensure projects being sited provide a net community benefit.
Citizens must have faith that their voices are heard in the Site Evaluation Committee decision-making process. This is a fundamental requirement, and the perception today is that the current siting process does not provide the public with that assurance. A consistent message in the SB 99 report is the need for a meaningful pre-application process through which the public and affected communities can be assured an applicant is integrating public input on a proposed project. This is a simple solution that can bring great benefit to the process.
The current Site Evaluation Committee process is undoubtedly complicated and formal — comparable to a court proceeding — making it difficult for average citizens to engage fully. We believe the process would benefit greatly by the addition of a public and municipal coordinator whose job is to assist concerned citizens and ensure their issues and concerns are adequately represented to the SEC. Our bill does that.
New Hampshire’s Site Evaluation Committee is the largest energy facility siting committee in New England. Fifteen high-ranking state employees representing eight individual state agencies sit on the SEC. While this structure may have made good sense when it was first established decades ago, the number, size and complexity of current energy projects has meant agency leadership is spending large amounts of time on energy siting cases, stretching its capacity to fulfill its primary job obligations and provide appropriate consideration to SEC applications.
We need a new structure that takes advantage of the expertise of our state agencies, but doesn’t take leadership away from their core responsibilities. We believe that a smaller SEC, with appropriate and specific guidance, is in the state’s best interests.
We also believe the public needs a stronger role in the decision-making process. Public appointments to supplement the SEC membership will provide for additional and important perspectives on projects and their value to the state and the communities where they will be sited.
A restructured SEC needs to have adequate staff resources to efficiently carry out its duties. The lack of staff capacity and current funding was identified in the SB 99 process as a major weakness in the process. Consistent and adequate funding is needed to ensure the process serves the public, state agencies and the applicant. New Hampshire needs a tiered application fee according to the size of the project that can be used to offset the administrative and public coordination aspects of the SEC process. We believe developers will feel a well-structured application fee is money well spent as the additional resources will bring a greater degree of consistency and predictability to the siting process.
The public was clear that affected communities need to understand the local, statewide and regional benefit proposed projects will have. While our current process focuses on determining whether there are no “unreasonable adverse impacts” on such things as natural resources and aesthetics, the SEC does not have a mandate to fully weigh and balance the costs and benefits of projects as a whole. We propose to add language to the existing siting statute to require the SEC weigh all the environmental, economic and community impacts — positive and negative — and determine whether an energy project is indeed in the public interest.
Changing a process so integral to our state’s long-term interests and involving so many stakeholders is always challenging. We are committed to using the information gathered as part of the SB 99 process to make modest but meaningful reforms this legislative session. We are looking forward to working with industry, affected communities, fellow legislators and the public on meeting these three identified goals. The energy decisions facing us are fundamental to the environment, economy and quality of life we all enjoy here in New Hampshire, and ensuring that the public’s voice is heard in making these difficult decisions is essential to our success.
Jeanie Forrester, R-Meredith, Martha Fuller-Clark, D-Portsmouth, Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, and Jeff Woodburn, D-Dalton, are members of the N.H. state Senate.