Power to the People is NH Consumer Advocate D. Maurice Kreis’ new column that will be posted every three weeks. Kreis and his staff of four represent the interests of residential utility customers before the NH Public Utilities Commission and elsewhere.
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The calendar said January 9, 1996. Motorola had just unveiled the first flip phone, Boston was digging out from a blizzard, NBC was airing the first episode of Third Rock from the Sun, and, at the State House in Concord, the pending question was what to do about the ridiculously high rates being charged by Public Service Company of New Hampshire (PSNH).
“The ratepayers thus far have been eating poor decisions,” Senator Burton J. Cohen (D-New Castle) told the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee. “It’s time to leave it up to the free market. Let the utility bear responsibility for their own actions.”
By “poor decisions” Cohen was referring to PSNH’s insistence on sticking with the Seabrook nuclear power plant, whose delays and cost overruns had made PSNH the first electric utility since the Great Depression to declare bankruptcy in 1988. Customers paid dearly for that colossal blunder, chiefly through hefty rate increases that funded the successful bid of a Connecticut utility to take over its reeling New Hampshire neighbor and run PSNH as a subsidiary.
Hoping to prevent similar situations from recurring, Cohen and other lawmakers from both parties were successfully urging their colleagues to adopt what became the Electric Industry Restructuring Act of 1996. It made New Hampshire the first state in the nation to move to strip utilities of their generation monopoly and allow customers to pick who would sell them electricity over their utility’s poles and wires.
After all, PSNH and its fellow pipeline developers are not promising that building Access Northeast and including its costs in non-bypassable electric rates will make electricity cheaper. They’re selling that proposition on a “trust me” basis. Well, trust us, the statutorily designated representatives of New Hampshire’s residential utility customers, to be at the Court making a forceful argument against this effort to undermine restructuring.
Senator Cohen had it exactly right in 1996 – now that PSNH’s customers will finally be free of the risks associated with new investments in generation assets, and New Hampshire’s electric industry will be restructured at long last – it is time for the free market to assume responsibility for the financial success of electricity production, including the acquisition of any necessary fossil fuel. The flip phone – or, as it is sometimes called, the clamshell phone – may be making a comeback, but we should not likewise revert to the past when it comes to making electricity and unlearn the lesson of the Seabrook debacle.