New England Ratepayers Association
The New England Ratepayers Association (NERA) claims to be the “voice of families and businesses served by regulated utilities,” but its lobbying and regulatory advocacy often align with the interests of investor-owned utilities and the fossil fuel industry.
NERA has close ties to New Hampshire’s Republican Governor Chris Sununu and his family, which has a long legacy of climate science denial and opposition to clean energy policies.
NERA also has ties to the natural gas and utility industries.
In 2020, in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, NERA filed a petition with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that threatens to undermine state net metering programs that have fueled the rise of rooftop solar and other forms of distributed energy resources nationally.
NERA has a long record of opposing net metering bills in New Hampshire and Maine. The group is also an intervenor in a longstanding New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission’s (NH PUC) docket for net metering. As part of that proceeding, NERA was part of the “Utility and Consumer Coalition” that included the electric utilities Eversource, Liberty Utilities, and Unitil, as well as the Consumer Energy Alliance, an industry front group.
A 2015 policy brief found on NERA’s website summarizes the group’s longtime opposition to a host of clean energy policies, including renewable energy standards, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and energy efficiency programs.
NERA launched in 2013 with a campaign against the Cape Wind project located off the coast of Massachusetts. It’s not a typical “Not in my backyard” group, as the group has consistently embraced fossil fuel infrastructure. NERA’s policy brief illustrates how the group has long fought to keep open the Merrimack Station, New Hampshire’s last major coal-fired power plant, and how it has supported the expansion of natural gas pipelines in the state and region.
NERA also supported Eversource’s failed Northern Pass project in public comments filed with the New Hampshire Siting Evaluation Committee. In a related NH PUC case, Eversource objected to motions to intervene filed by Northern Pass opponents like the Conservation Law Foundation, but did not object to NERA’s motion to intervene in the case.
The New England Ratepayers Association, Inc. formed in 2013 as a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization, and is registered as a foreign nonprofit organization in New Hampshire. NERA is listed with the IRS as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization, and does not disclose publicly its members or donors.
NERA’s purpose is “to engage in advocacy activities that promote legislation, regulatory rules, policies and projects that benefit ratepayers of regulated and unregulated utilities in the New England region,” according to the group’s Articles of Incorporation.
Marc Brown is NERA’s executive director, president, treasurer, clerk, and lobbyist. Brown also heads Advantage Government Affairs, a lobbying firm “focused on state-level government relations, representing client companies and trade groups before the executive and legislative branches of government.”
A Boston-based attorney named Terence Ankner has been listed as the only other director for the group, but his role in the group appears to be limited. His name does not appear on NERA’s website.
Marc Brown was the only officer or director for NERA listed on the group’s 2020 annual report to the State of New Hampshire.
“State of organization does not require directors,” the annual report stated.
According to NERA’s website:
The New England Ratepayers Association (NERA) was established to give a larger voice for the families and businesses that are served by regulated utilities.
While there are numerous business and industry organizations across the region, often their mission and focus is minimized because of conflicting interests of their members. Even offices of “consumer advocates” often advocate for policies and regulations that raise the cost of energy, water, electricity, and telecommunications services. It is time for an independent non-profit to be the voice of the people who pay the bills.
NERA does not publicly disclose its members or funders, and the FAQs section of the group’s website states:
Our membership is made up of New England based individuals and businesses who are concerned about the high cost of energy, water, and telecommunications, and the impact these costs have on our region’s economic growth. As a matter of policy, the organization does not disclose its supporters without their express permission. NERA’s policy positions and advocacy efforts stand on their own merits, and should not be defined by the perception of those associated with it. Those with opposing viewpoints are welcome to engage us in the debate, but will have to do so on the strength of their arguments, not by attacking our members.
NERA has faced questions about its membership and funders during testimony before the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission, as well as from Republican and Democratic state lawmakers.
In a 2019 filing, Public Citizen and state legislators from New Hampshire asked FERC to require NERA to disclose its members, after NERA filed an ultimately successful petition with FERC challenging a New Hampshire law that subsidized biomass plants.
Public Citizen argued that NERA’s membership was limited to just “12 companies,” based on a record of Marc Brown’s earlier testimony on behalf of NERA before a New Hampshire House committee.
“NERA therefore is structured not as a conventional household ratepayer-rights group, but as a corporate trade association representing the financial interests of its 12 member companies,” according to Public Citizen.
“Because NERA does not disclose the identities of its 12 members, it could be representing the financ lo ial interests of select industrial consumers, commercial consumers, or even wholesale power generation/distribution interests who may be financially impacted by the New Hampshire statute at issue in NERA’s Petition — not as ratepayers, but as wholesale market participants,” Public Citizen argued.
The Electric Power Supply Association filed comments supporting NERA’s petition in the biomass case, as FERC noted in its order granting the petition.
Brown disputed Public Citizen’s claims, which he said were based on an “incomplete transcript” in a 2019 statement to the Energy News Network.
“NERA has testified to the fact that we have hundreds of members, both individuals and businesses, throughout New England — with membership increasing every year,” Brown said.
NERA’s annual revenue has come mostly from membership dues, according to the group’s Form 990 filings with the IRS. Those membership dues decreased from $260,000 in 2017 to $245,000 in 2018.
FERC did not respond to Public Citizen’s request, and ultimately granted NERA’s petition on New Hampshire’s biomass law.
In 2020, NERA filed another petition with FERC, this time attacking state net metering programs. Public Citizen told Utility Dive that it planned to again ask FERC to require NERA to disclose its members.
Marc Brown: Ratepayer advocate or corporate lobbyist?
Marc Brown is registered as a lobbyist for NERA in New Hampshire. In quarterly lobbying reports filed in New Hampshire since 2015, Brown has consistently reported no lobbying fees or expenses for NERA. He has disclosed campaign contributions donations he’s made to state legislators, members of the state’s executive council, and Governor Chris Sununu.
NERA reported total $102,000 in compensation to Brown, but listed no lobbying expenditures on on its latest annual 990 report to the IRS for 2018.
Brown’s summary of his work for NERA on his LinkedIn profile includes the following bullet points:
- Drafted and lobbied for the passage of legislation increasing protections and transparency for electricity consumers with regards to their contracts with competitive electricity suppliers.
- Opposed dozens of state proposals that would increase costs to electricity consumers. Successfully helped to fight numerous bills that would make it more difficult for energy companies to site infrastructure projects.
- Provided testimony on energy issues before State Legislative Committees, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Committee on Energy and Commerce.
Brown is also the director of Advantage Government Affairs, where he has represented “client companies and trade groups before the executive and legislative branches of government,” since 2017.
Brown’s lobbying fees for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers totaled $50,000 in 2019. His lobbying fees for Core Civic, a private prison company, that year amounted to $26,250. Earlier clients included the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association and Securus Technologies.
“It is highly unusual for a ratepayer advocate to simultaneously serve as a corporate lobbyist,” according to Public Citizen’s 2019 filing with FERC.
James Burnett worked alongside Brown as the president of Advantage Government Affairs starting in 2018 until April of 2018. The following month, Burnett became the president of Sight Line Public Affairs and a lobbyist for Eversource.
Brown is also listed as an advisor for the New England Coalition for Affordable Energy, which is a front group “sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute” that “advocates for the expansion of the region’s natural gas and electricity infrastructure to make these vital energy commodities more affordable.”
Brown also serves on the board of directors for the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, which has received funding from the Edison Electric Institute and the Koch-linked Donors Capital Fund. NERA is listed as a member of the Consumer Energy Alliance, an industry front group based out of the public relations and lobbying firm HBW Resources.
Earlier in his career, Brown lobbied on a “variety of issues including: school choice, budget deficits and cigarette and liquor taxes” as the New Hampshire field director for FreedomWorks in 2008-2009, according to his LinkedIn page.
NERA’s ties to the Sununus and another mysterious group called the Ratepayers Legal Defense Fund
Marc Brown currently resides in the small town of Newfields, NH, which is also home to New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu and his brother Michael Sununu. Brown and Michael Sununu are involved in the town’s local politics, where Michael Sununu used his position as a selectman to axe a curbside recycling program, an issue discussed at a 2020 town meeting moderated by Brown.
In 2017, NERA’s Brown and Eversource president William Quinlan were among the co-hosts of a fundraiser for New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu’s re-election campaign. Governor Sununu’s vetoes of bipartisan net metering bills later became an issue in the race, as his campaign raised money from the utilities that opposed those bills.
In 2018, Brown formed a mysterious new non-profit called the Ratepayers Legal Defense Fund, Inc. (RLDF) with two of the governor’s brothers, James and Michael Sununu. The group is incorporated in the State of Delaware.
RLDF’s purpose is to “Support education about and legal challenges to public policies that increase costs to utility ratepayers,” according to a filing with the New Hampshire Secretary of State.
RLDF’s initial Form 990 report to the IRS identified the group as a tax exempt 501(c)(3) organization. The phone number for RLDF listed on the report is also the number for Sununu Enterprises and Sununu Partners LLC.
“The organization was not active in 2018, with no revenue or expenses,” the report said.
The Form 990 also identified Geoffrey K. Mitchell and New Hampshire state representatives Michael Harrington and Michael Vose as additional members of RLDF’s board of directors in 2018.
Mitchell, a partner at Brant Energy, Inc., is a longtime consultant for the utility and gas industries. A list of clients found on his firm’s website includes utilities like Eversource, Liberty Utilities, and National Grid, as well as pipeline and gas companies like BP Canada, Chevron Texaco, Mobil Oil – Canada, and Spectra Energy. Like NERA, Brant Energy is a member of the New England Coalition for Affordable Energy backed by the American Petroleum Institute.
A few months after RLDF was formed, Governor Chris Sununu nominated Mitchell to serve on the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee, but his nomination was rejected by the state’s Executive Council.
“I had already spoken with Mr. Mitchell at some length and learned that he was encouraged to apply for the nomination by the Governor’s brother, Michael Sununu, and that he has lifelong experience working as an engineering consultant for developers of large energy projects of the kind that come before the SEC [Site Evaluation Committee} for approval,” Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky wrote in a report that explained his vote to oppose Mitchell’s nomination.
Governor Sununu then nominated Vose to the Site Evaluation Committee, but Vose’s nomination was withdrawn amid public concerns about his record of climate denial and opposition to clean energy policies like net metering.
RLDF’s filing with the New Hampshire Secretary of State was dated about a month before NERA filed its petition with FERC challenging New Hampshire’s biomass law. The biomass law was enacted through a bill vetoed by Governor Sununu, a veto state legislators then voted to override in a bipartisan vote before NERA filed its petition.
It appears NERA never filed anything with FERC before RLDF was formed in 2018, based on an online search of FERC’s docket system.
The Concord address listed for RLDF is also the address for Prospect Hill Strategies, a lobbying firm that’s represented BAE Systems and gun maker Sig Sauer, two companies that have figured into NERA and Governor Sununu’s attacks on net metering. Marc Brown was listed as the RLDF’s registered agent, also located at the same address.
Michael Sununu has represented NERA before the NH PUC on net metering. He’s also been the managing director of Sununu Enterprises since 1999, and NERA has employed his @sununuenterprises.com email address in communications with the NH PUC.
In 2019, New Hampshire Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes wrote to the NH PUC and objected to the participation of Marc Brown and Michael Sununu in a proceeding related to the implementation of a bill he sponsored establishing a community solar program benefiting low-income ratepayers.
“Unfortunately, now it appears Mike Sununu, a corporate lobbyist working on behalf of fossil fuel interests and out-of-state corporations is working to undermine implementation of SB 165,” according to Feltes’ letter.
The website for Sununu Enterprises is no longer active, but according to an archived front page from the site that appeared online between 2011 and 2019:
Our clients include large multinational corporations as well as privately owned companies looking for opportunities to enhance their business. The companies are currently engaged in power development, wireless and emergency communications deployment, real estate development, project financing, water development, and international licensing agreements…
While the company has conducted business in a wide variety of market sectors, some of the most prominent areas include:
Software and Technology
Sununu Enterprises’ website listed services including “Regulatory Strategies,” and spoke to the Sununu family’s broad web of influence.
Our contacts range from the U.S. private sector to the public sector, from the state and local level to Washington, DC and the international arena. The firm’s experience within the private sector and government allows us to understand the issues companies face within the private sector and how best to provide the strategic direction to help our clients succeed.
Governor Sununu was a principal at Sununu Enterprises from 2006-2010, according to his LinkedIn profile. He then served on the New Hampshire Executive Council from 2011 until becoming governor in 2017, but remained connected to Sununu Enterprises during that time. A political committee registration form filed in 2013 listed his brother James Sununu as the treasurer for the “Friends of Chris Sununu” political committee for the upcoming election. Sununu Enterprises was listed on the form as James’ place of principal employment.
James Burnett was also principal at Profile Strategy Group, which was co-founded by Michael Sununu, when he worked alongside Marc Brown at Advantage Government Affairs in 2017-2018. Burnett helped to direct then governor-elect Chris Sununu’s transition into office after the 2016 election, was later appointed by the governor to serve as a trustee for the University of New Hampshire.
NERA’s Advisory Board
NERA has an advisory board that includes three members.
Michael Harrington is a self-described “energy and regulatory consultant with unique experience” serving as a commissioner and senior regional policy advisory with the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission from 2005-2013. Harrington also spent over twenty years working for Public Service of New Hampshire (now Eversource) at the Seabrook Station nuclear power plant.
Harrington is also a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, where he serves on the Science, Technology and Energy Committee. As a state rep, Harrington has introduced bills and amendments targeting policies opposed by NERA, including net metering and RGGI.
In 2020, Rep. Harrington listed the “public utility” Eversource as a source of income on his annual financial disclosure form. The form includes income from retirement benefits.
As a member of the NH PUC in 2012, Harrington faced calls for his resignation, or at least his recusal from cases involving PSNH, due to the stakeholder concerns that the pension he received from his former employer represented a conflict of interest. PSNH sided with Harrington, and the PUC allowed him to stay on the case in an order signed by two commissioners, one of whom was Harrington himself.
NERA’s board of advisors also includes Wayne Winegarden, a Virginia-based principal at Capital Economic Advisors and senior fellow for the Pacific Research Institute, which has received funding from Koch foundations.
Former Vermont Governor James Douglas also serves on NERA’s board of advisors. As governor of Vermont, Douglas was often critical of wind power.
NERA and the New Hampshire Business & Industry Association
Marc Brown and NERA are also active in the New Hampshire Business & Industry Association, which hosts annual Energy Symposiums often sponsored by NERA and utility and fossil fuel interests. The NH BIA has aligned with NERA and the state’s utilities in opposing net metering bills that have been vetoed by Governor Sununu.
FERC petition on net metering
Raskin and Roberts filed the petition in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, but NERA nonetheless “requested that the Commission address this Petition as promptly as practicable.”
“Notwithstanding the need for prompt Commission action, NERA recognizes that the Commission may wish to provide interested parties with some additional time to respond to this Petition in light of the current situation concerning COVID-19,” a footnote in the petition said.
FERC set a short timeframe for filing comments on the petition, due about a month after it was filed.
NERA’s petition asks FERC to overturn current precedent and assert control over state net metering policies, based on a controversial legal theory Raskin laid out at least as early as 2014.
Raskin presented on the topic of “Federal Regulatory Issues: Are Net Metering Transactions within FERC or State Jurisdiction?” at the Edison Electric Institute’s 2014 Spring Legal Conference. Raskin also provided a presentation on “Jurisdiction Over Net Metering,” at a 2014 conference held by the utility-backed Harvard Electricity Policy Group.
NERA’s petition also seeks to cut the rates that utility customers are paid for net metering, which has supported the growth of rooftop solar. The petition cites a 2014 issue brief, “Net Energy Metering: Subsidy Issues and Regulatory Solutions,” by the Edison Foundation Institute for Electric Innovation, an EEI affiliate.
Raskin’s work on net metering has been cited by special interest groups involved in the utility industry’s campaign against net metering, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Raskin has represented the Edison Electric Institute in the past, but EEI told Politico Pro in 2020 that it was currently “not a client and not working with these lawyers on this filing.”
In response to an email from the Energy and Policy Institute, a spokesperson for Eversource acknowledged that the utility has used Steptoe & Johnson’s legal services, but said “We have not made any contributions to NERA and we are not a member.”
“We are not involved in any way with the petition to FERC,” the Eversource spokesperson also said.
NERA’s petition included a report from “expert witness” Ashley Brown. Brown, a former regulator, leads the Harvard Electricity Policy Group. For years, Brown has testified on behalf of utilities against net metering around the country.
Ashley Brown is clear in his NERA report, as he always is, that his testimony is separate from the HEPG, which he says does not take policy positions.
As of March 2016, HEPG stated on its website that it was funded by “the generous support of the following organizations,” before listing 79 entities, many of which were electric utilities opposed to rooftop solar and net metering. HEPG later deleted the language about funding support from its website.
HEPG also hosts state regulators at quarterly junkets at high-end resorts, how those meetings are dominated by utility interests, and how HEPG pays for the regulators’ travel, food and hotel stays.
Ashley Brown has represented the utility Unitil in the long-running NH PUC’s net metering case. In 2017, Unitil disclosed expenses totaling nearly $345,000 for work by “Black & Veatch; Ashley Brown” on that docket.