Board to continue utility study while New Hampshire lawmakers work on reimbursement issue

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CONCORD, New Hampshire — The state's Public Utilities Commission said Thursday it will pause its review of a reimbursement issue regarding New Hampshire's largest utility while lawmakers try to forge a solution.

But the regulatory body said it would not delay study on the effects that continued Public Service Company of New Hampshire ownership of 12 plants would have on consumers. The company owns three fossil fuel plants and nine hydroelectric plants.

PSNH asked the commission last month to delay a decision on how much the company should be reimbursed for a $422 million scrubber that went online at its Merrimack Station in 2011.

The commission said it would grant that request even though it came late in the process and the arguments for it were "thin." The commission said it would be reasonable to allow lawmakers to try to find a solution since they passed a law key to related litigation.

The regulators also granted the utility's request because they said that a final order from them could disrupt the legislative discussion by signaling commission support for one side or the other and that delaying their review would not hurt ratepayers.

State Sen. Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican who chairs the Energy & Natural Resources Committee, had lent his name to the utility company's request for a delay, saying he thought it was in the best interest of all the parties. He praised the commission decision and said he hopes the legislature can resolve the scrubber issue and protect ratepayers at the same time.

The commission said it will monitor the progress of any legislation and settlement talks, and if it becomes clear those avenues aren't nearing a resolution, the commission will issue its order. It asked the utility to update the commission every month.

On the fate of the power plants, the commission denied the request for a stay of a study, saying that would conflict with a statutory requirement to expedite the proceeding.

"We will proceed with this docket unless and until that legislative directive is changed," the commission said.

In April, PUC staff recommended the utility sell its power plants to save customers money. The commission said that in the quest for cheaper energy options, PSNH will eventually have to charge more for power than competitors and pass on higher rates.

The report said PSNH's 12 power plants have a total value of $660 million but would probably bring about $225 million on the open market, leaving $435 million in costs to be paid by consumers. Those numbers could change depending on how much the company can get back from the scrubber investment.

Company officials call the plants an insurance policy against price spikes.

The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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