Republican Chris Sununu needs outside approval for most commissioner appointments he will make as governor. But he can install one agency head without any sign-off – director of the governor’s Office of Energy and Planning.
The small agency has no regulatory power and little state funding, but its leader can play a key role in developing New Hampshire’s energy strategy and community planning.
Sununu has yet to float any names for the position, but his skeptical stance on climate change, support for the Northern Pass project and opposition to a regional cap-and-trade program will likely inform his pick.
“It’s a very important position,” he said last week. “I’m looking at a variety of different candidates, but haven’t made any decision yet.”
Energy is an area where Sununu’s positions visibility break from those of outgoing Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan.
Sununu, an environmental engineer and outgoing CEO of Waterville Valley Ski Resort, has said “nobody knows for sure” whether climate change is man-made or not.
While Hassan moved to expand solar power and energy efficiency during her two terms as governor, Sununu campaigned on increasing the region’s baseload power – mainly characterized as fossil-fuel facilities that can be turned on and off as needed.
The 19-member Office of Energy and Planning primarily distributes federal heating fuel aid and energy efficiency dollars. Of the agency’s $32.8 million budget this year, roughly $31.3 million are federal funds that get passed onto other organizations and initiatives. The agency, nested within the governor’s office, also helps communities plan development and land conservation.
The director can act as a policy resource for lawmakers, oversee the state energy plan and represent the governor’s office before regulators.
“They don’t have the regulatory hammer to make people do things,” said Jim O’Brien, with the New Hampshire chapter of the Nature Conservancy. “But they can be influential in negotiations with parties and bringing issues to the forefront of public discussions.”
Meredith Hatfield, a director under Hassan, helped negotiate a major settlement with Eversource Energy that calls for the utility to sell all its New Hampshire power plants. Amanda Merrill, a former state senator and representative from Durham, has been director since June, but hasn’t had a conversation with Sununu about the future.
The next director office of energy may weigh in on issues surrounding Northern Pass, which is currently in the state evaluation process.
Sununu is a vocal proponent for Northern Pass and has called for the controversial energy project to be built. The transmission line is set to run mostly overhead for 192 miles through the state. While advocates and public officials have called for full burial of the line, Sununu has said it would make the project financially unfeasible.
“You are never going to bury the whole line,” he told the Monitor in August. “If we force that on them, the project is just not going to happen.”
Sununu drew criticism from his opponents during the campaign for taking more than $18,000 from employees of Eversource Energy, including the company’s CEO. The utility is overseeing Northern Pass, which would bring 1,000 megawatts of Candidan hydropower to the New England grid. Sununu has said the campaign contributions had nothing to do with his support for the project.
The next agency head will also have a hand in the state’s 10-year energy strategy, due for an update in 2017. The original plan, released in 2014, recommends the state diversify its energy sources by adding more solar power and wind generation.
Sununu has said he supports energy efficiency and renewable energy. But on the Executive Council, he voted against funding a $35 million wind farm in Berlin and a $3.9 million solar array to power the city of Manchester. He said the projects didn’t make financial sense.
“We have to be smart,” Sununu said during a primary debate on WMUR. “With myself in the governor’s office, we have an opportunity to have a governor that understands these issues. One of the biggest concerns of this entire issue is that we’ve created all this regulation that pushes down on businesses and pushes down on individuals.”
Regulation will likely be key in the coming years. The fate of the federal Clean Power Plan, which Hassan moved to impliment as governor, is now largely in question after Donald Trump’s presidential win. It aims to cut carbon emissions nationwide, and New Hampshire plans to meet the requirements through its participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a carbon cap-and-trade program.
Sununu has said he would like to leave RGGI, but on Thursday said that may only be feasible if other states in the pact also back out.
“I have never been a big fan of RGGI, I think there are better ways to run that program,” he said. “If all the states wanted to go out, we should discuss the possibility to redesign the system.”
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