Updated on September 11, 2018. Former New Hampshire House speaker Bill O’Brien, now a lobbyist for the Edison Electric Institute, and the Koch-backed group Americans for Prosperity will host an invite-only meeting with state lawmakers one day before a key vote on overriding Governor Chris Sununu’s veto of a bipartisan net metering bill.
The bill, SB 446, would expand New Hampshire’s net metering program and allow for more local communities and businesses to share in the cost-saving benefits of larger renewable energy projects. It’s been backed by Republican leaders, including House Speaker Gene Chandler and Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley.
Sununu’s veto of the net metering bill, and his campaign contributions from electric utilities like Eversource that have opposed it, have become targets for the Democratic candidates for governor Molly Kelly and Steve Marchand. Marchand is among the more than 1,000 candidates nationally who have signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge backed by environmental groups. The pledge includes campaign contributions from Eversource.
The bill was opposed by Donna Gamache, director of government affairs for Eversource, at a January hearing. Lobbyists for Unitil and Liberty Utilities also testified in opposition to the bill at the same hearing.
Sununu’s veto was publicly supported by special interest groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council that have been part of the fossil fuel and utility industries’ national campaign attacking net metering programs in states like neighboring Maine.
The Edison Electric Institute and Americans for Prosperity
Bill O’Brien, a lobbyist for the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), will host the latest in a series of Center Right Meetings on September 12 at the headquarters of Americans for Prosperity-New Hampshire (AFP-NH), just one day before state legislators convene for their veto override session.
“Center Right Meetings are private meetings for invited guests only,” according to an event listing posted on Eventbrite.com. “No video or audio recordings of any part of the meeting is allowed without prior approval of Mr. William O’Brien or Mr. Stephen Stepanek.”
Update Sept. 11: The language quoted above still appeared in the Eventbrite listing on September 6, as shown in this screenshot of the archived webpage captured by Google Cache, but by September 11, that language no longer appeared in the listing. The language about the “private” nature of the meeting could still be found elsewhere online.
Stepanek is O’Brien’s partner at Liberty Tree Consulting & Strategies, which organizes the Center Right Meetings.
“Invited attendees vary in position, including elected officials, committee chair people, former honorable officials, political advocacy group members, and beyond,” according to the firm’s website.
“At meetings, topics that are often discussed include bills currently under review in the state legislature,” the firm’s site also reveals.
Back in June, O’Brien and Greg Moore, the state director for AFP-NH wrote an op-ed that called on Sununu to veto the net metering bill. O’Brien did not disclose in the op-ed that he was a paid lobbyist for EEI. AFP is best known for its close ties to the Koch brothers, but EEI’s annual filings with IRS have revealed payments to AFP as well.
Moore served as O’Brien’s chief of staff during O’Brien’s controversial stint as New Hampshire House Speaker. As House speaker, O’Brien spearheaded attacks on clean energy policies like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, attacks that Moore has continued through his work for AFP-NH.
The op-ed by O’Brien and Moore claimed that net metering amounted to a subsidy for the solar industry that would be paid for by electric utility customers, a claim similar to the “cost-shift” argument long employed by EEI in its attacks on net metering. EEI has long feared that competition from solar power could lead to a “utility death spiral.”
A 2017 review of state net metering programs for rooftop solar by the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab provided further evidence that the electric utility industry’s “cost-shifting” argument against net metering is largely a self-serving myth. The same report also found that spikes in natural gas prices, a familiar problem in New Hampshire, pose a real risk to utility customers. Diversifying the electricity mix can help alleviate those risks, but Eversource relies on natural gas for 40 percent of its power in New Hampshire, while renewables only supply around 17 percent.
Eversource shifts much of the cost of its Edison Electric Institute dues onto customers
O’Brien also failed to mention in his op-ed that Eversource recovers a portion of its annual EEI dues from its customers in New Hampshire. It’s not alone. A report by the Energy and Policy Institute documented how many utilities across the nation shift most of the costs of their EEI dues onto customers.
“Eversource does recover the EEI dues through rates,” Rorie E. Patterson, Assistant Director for the Consumer Services and External Affairs Division at the NH Public Utilities Commission, confirmed via email.
Patterson pointed to a document (see pages 208-209) from Eversource’s (then Public Service of New Hampshire) most recent case in 2009 for confirmation. The document listed $135,681 for annual EEI dues in the “test year” 2008.
“N.H. Code of Admin. Rules Puc 310.02 prohibits recovery from customers of political activities,… so I presume the amount included in the revenue requirement does not include lobbying costs,” Patterson also noted, and provided a link to the PUC rules.
Patterson also shared PSNH’s response to a related 2009 data request from the Office of the Consumers Counsel.
“All Donations and Lobbying expenses are charged below the line,” PSNH said at the time, indicating that its lobbying expenses are not recovered from customers, and are instead borne out of investors’ profits.
PSNH did not provide any documentation to confirm that the portion of EEI dues that goes to lobbying was not paid by customers. In some states, like California, regulators have decreased the portion of EEI dues that utilities are allowed to recover from customers, after reviewing such documentation during rate cases.
Eversource provided the Energy and Policy Institute with a statement regarding its recovery of some of its EEI dues from customers:
In accordance with the N.H. Public Utilities Commission’s rules, we do not recover the costs of any promotional, political or institutional advertising or activities – including lobbying – from customers through rates. During our last rate case in 2009, a portion of our EEI dues was recovered in rates and another was not. Membership in EEI is fairly common among utilities and provides many services beyond lobbying for the benefit of the company and our customers. The portion of dues recovered by rates covered those other services such as data and research on emergency preparedness, cybersecurity, and other important issues affecting electric utility companies that help us provide safe, reliable electric service to our customers.
Eversource did not respond to a follow-up email asking for documentation, such as EEI invoices that utilities have provided to regulators in other states, to help confirm that the portion of EEI dues that funds political activities is not recovered from customers.
Either way, Eversource customers who, like most Americans, support net metering are being forced to fund at least a portion of the utility’s payments to EEI through their electricity bills.
More front groups and lobbyists
Other lobbyists and front groups with ties to Eversource or EEI have also joined in the attack on the net metering bill that was vetoed by Governor Sununu in June.
In May, Eversource hired lobbyist James Burnett, who helped to direct then governor-elect Chris Sununu’s transition into office after the 2016 election. Up until May, Burnett was also a principal at Profile Strategy Group, which was co-founded by Governor Sununu’s brother Michael Sununu, a climate change skeptic.
Until the end of April, Burnett was also still the president of Advantage Government Affairs, where his partners included Marc Brown. Brown is the lobbyist and executive director for the New England Ratepayers Association (NERA), which does not disclose its funders.
Brown supported Sununu’s veto of the net metering bill, and also testified on behalf of NERA at the January hearing where Eversource and other utilities opposed the bill. State Rep. Michael Harrington, who sponsored a failed amendment that would have largely undermined the net metering bill, is a member of NERA’s advisory board.
The Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA) released a report attacking net metering programs for solar power in Concord on June 14, just a few days before Sununu’s veto. The group counts the Edison Electric Institute and a number of electric utility companies among its members. CEA also has a history of faking public support for its campaigns against net metering and in support of pipelines in states like Wisconsin, Ohio, and, most recently, South Carolina.
The electric utility industry’s campaign to stop New Hampshire lawmakers from overriding Sununu’s veto is in many ways similar to one the industry waged in Maine last year to uphold Governor LePage’s veto of a bipartisan net metering bill. One key difference is that, so far, Republican leaders in the New Hampshire House and Senate have not been swayed by the influence of the utilities and their lobbyists and front groups.