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Climate Activists Will Launch Utility Bill Strike In New England Sept. 1

Anti-coal activists march down the train tracks near Merrimack Station in Bow last fall.
Annie Ropeik
Anti-coal activists march down the train tracks near Merrimack Station in Bow last fall.
Anti-coal activists march down the train tracks near Merrimack Station in Bow last fall.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR
Anti-coal activists march down the train tracks near Merrimack Station in Bow last fall.

Activists are calling on electric customers in New Hampshire and New England to stop paying their utility bills on Sept. 1, in a strike that aims to put pressure on the regional energy system to address climate change.

No Coal, No Gas campaign volunteer Jeff Gang says the goal is to have a thousand people signed up to strike ahead of time.

“What we’re asking people to do is something where you’re withdrawing consent from a system that’s working in a really exploitative and oppressive way,” Gang says.

The strike focuses on what are known as forward capacity payments, which fossil fuel-fired power plants and others receive in the amount of millions of dollars, in exchange for promising the regional grid manager, ISO-New England, that they’ll provide electricity a few years into the future.

Gang argues this helps keep coal and gas plants afloat artificially, at ratepayers’ expense. The strike will call for an end to that practice.

“We’re calling on the people who are experts, who work at ISO, the people who run utility companies – just start taking climate change seriously,” Gang says. “Because right now, the way the system works is – it’s taking extra money from people and it’s putting it toward a system that’s sort of mortgaging everyone’s future.”

Activists protest in January 2020 at town hall in Holyoke, Massachusetts, where ISO-New England is headquartered.
Credit No Coal No Gas / Youtube
Activists protest in January 2020 at town hall in Holyoke, Massachusetts, where ISO-New England is headquartered.

He says they want the ISO to rebate these capacity payments to customers in the short term, and reinvest them in cleaner forms of energy in the long term.

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ISO spokesman Matt Kakley says in a statement that the nonprofit's energy markets "are fuel and technology neutral and regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission."

He notes that New England now gets less than 1% of its power from coal- and oil-fired power plants, though the region's top source of fuel is still natural gas.

But Kakley says the ISO doesn't have the authority to shut down power plants, or to pick and choose who receives capacity payments. 

"Payments made under the regional Forward Capacity Market are not subsidies," Kakley says. "They are the result of a competitive wholesale market that welcomes all resources and technologies." 

The planned strike is also drawing criticism from New Hampshire's ratepayer advocate, Don Kreis. He says he's all for encouraging the region to transition away from fossil fuels, but that skipping bill payments won't affect the forward capacity market. 

Instead, he says utilities will shift the cost of unpaid bills onto other ratepayers in future periodic rate hikes - on top of the cost of unpaid bills during COVID-19, which Kreis expects the utilities will soon ask for permission to recover from customers. 

“So if you decide not to pay your electrical bill for political reasons, what you’re really doing is imposing the cost of your electric bill on your neighbors," Kreis says. 

Organizers say people who can afford to should donate what they don’t pay in their utility bills to groups in their communities that are responding to COVID-19 or working on racial justice issues.

Eversource spokesman William Hinkle says in a statement that the utility is required by law to "purchase power for our customers on the competitive wholesale market through a competitive bid process to ensure that energy supply costs are as low as possible." 

He says customers can buy certain kinds of energy from competitive suppliers, though these costs would still include forward capacity payments. 

Strike supporter Naomi Marthai of Maine poses with her utility bill and a handful of coal.
Credit Courtesy Jeff Gang / No Coal, No Gas
No Coal, No Gas
Strike supporter Naomi Marthai of Maine poses with her utility bill and a handful of coal.

Unitil spokeswoman Carol Valianti also says they're "already a supporter of the emission goals of all of the states we operate in," and says Unitil's "focus right now is on helping families and businesses struggling with the impacts of COVID." 

Gang, with No Coal, No Gas, says organizers recognize that people participating in the strike could risk having their power shut off later in the fall. That’s when most New England states plan to start to lift their pandemic-related bans on service disconnections.

Kreis, the ratepayer advocate, says he worries the strike could interfere with his efforts and those of groups like New Hampshire Legal Aid to soften the blow of the end of their state's moratorium on shutoffs. 

"That is a very privileged place to be coming from, to say, 'Yes, I can pay my bill, but I'm not gonna because I don't feel like it because I don't like coal,'" he says. "That is going to make it more difficult to convince the utilities and the [Public Utilities Commission] to put some strict limitations in place about disconnection, in order to help the people who really can't afford to pay their bills." 

Kreis thinks activists should try to reform the system from within, by joining the stakeholder group known as NEPOOL that helps write New England's energy market rules, including those that enable fossil fuel plants to offer to meet future power demand in exchange for forward capacity payments.

“You have to get down into the weeds and look at the reserve margins that we require – do we really need them to be that big?" Kreis says. "We have to look at the way that we dispatch renewable energy. We have to look at the way that we account for energy efficiency.”

Kreis says groups like No Coal, No Gas, which has been affiliated in past protests with nonprofits like 350NH and the Climate Disobedience Center, could pay $500 a year as Kreis's office has done to join NEPOOL as "end users."

This subgroup of NEPOOL has less voting power than groups like power generators and transmission owners.

The strike will also involve what Gang calls the Coal Bucket Challenge. Organizers will mail participants small packets of coal, allegedly stolen last year from the region’s largest coal-fired power plant -- Merrimack Station in Bow.

Gang says people can mail this coal to the ISO headquarters in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and to their utilities. He says it’s another way to take direct action while obeying public health guidelines during the pandemic.

“Most of what we’re asking people to do is just, like, stay at home and withdraw consent from the system,” Gang says. “But it’s also exciting to be able to, you know, send the decision-makers a token reminding them of where their subsidies are going.”

Liberty Utilities declined to provide a comment for this story, as did Granite Shore Power, which owns Merrimack Station.

Editor's Note: This story was updated Wednesday afternoon to include comment from Don Kreis, ISO-New England, Eversource and Unitil.

Copyright 2020 New Hampshire Public Radio

Annie Ropeik reports on state economy and business issues for all Indiana Public Broadcasting stations, from a home base of WBAA. She has lived and worked on either side of the country, but never in the middle of it. At NPR affiliate KUCB in Alaska's Aleutian Islands, she covered fish, oil and shipping and earned an Alaska Press Club Award for business reporting. She then moved 4,100 miles to report on chickens, chemicals and more for Delaware Public Media. She is originally from the D.C. suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland, but her mom is a Hoosier. Annie graduated from Boston University with a degree in classics and philosophy. She performs a mean car concert, boasts a worryingly encyclopedic knowledge of One Direction lyrics and enjoys the rule of threes. She is also a Hufflepuff.
Annie Ropeik
Annie Ropeik joined NHPR’s reporting team in 2017, following stints with public radio stations and collaborations across the country. She has reported everywhere from fishing boats, island villages and cargo terminals in Alaska, to cornfields, factories and Superfund sites in the Midwest.