A Physicist Politician and Renewable Energy

Dr. Peter Somssich, New Hampshire State Representative

Considering how important technology is in our everyday life, I was glad to see that first APS member Russ Holt of New Jersey and then Bill Foster of Illinois became members of the United States House of Representatives.

I remember reading in the APS Newsletter a quote from Congressman Foster: “I have learned that there is a long list of neurons that you have to deaden to convert a scientist’s brain into a politician’s. When you speak with voters, you have to lead with conclusions rather than with a complex analysis of underlying evidence- something that is very unnatural to a scientist. You also have to repeat your main campaign message over and over again."

I wondered at the time if that is what you need to make yourself heard? But now that I am a New Hampshire State Representative in Concord, NH (not in Washington), I understand and agree with his comments completely. Taking that advice and making it work, however, is challenging.

In the NH House, unlike the US House, I am my own staff, research department and drafter of bills, while the only office I can call my own is my seat in Representative’s Hall which includes a slot for mail. As a member of the Science Technology and Energy (ST&E) committee I do receive some minimal administrative support, but primarily I do my own work. During my first 2-year term NH Governor Chris Sununu issued an updated 10-Year NH Energy Strategy plan that concedes our state’s near future to fossil fuels and commits NH to supporting and perhaps even increasing our dependence on nuclear energy, specifically NH’s only nuclear power plant, Seabrook Station in Seabrook, NH. In contrast to other neighboring New England states (and most of the world), this NH plan downplays the importance of energy efficiency and the role of renewable energy. The plan also ignores the fact that energy efficiency programs in NH are only minimally funded and that the Gulf of Maine is considered to be one of the best locations in the country to site offshore wind facilities.

When this plan was announced in April 2018, with no significant input from relevant NH state agencies, I decided that there needs to be an alternative plan that both highlights NH’s in-state renewable energy resources and also attempts to identify pathways to reach 100% renewable energy goals in the future. Of course, this also had to be accomplished without the help of state resources or any staff help. After a bill that I sponsored to create a study committee that would inventory NH’s renewable energy resources and identify possible options to reach a 100% renewable energy goal was voted down both in the ST&E committee and by the House, I decided to tackle the job that this bill was intended to do.

I recruited several members of the ST&E committee along with members of the business community, a total of 10 contributors plus myself. Each contributor was tasked with contributing a section for this white paper on a specific area connected to renewable energy about which they were knowledgeable. While I agreed to function as the editor each contributor was to submit a section of 2-3 pages length. I specifically promised contributors that I would not change their submissions and we all agreed that we did not have to all agree with each section of the white paper. Every contributor knew that they alone were responsible for the content of their section. Of course, trying to cobble together a cohesive paper that is both readable and that also covers all of the areas associated with renewable energy now and in the future is quite a challenge. To accomplish this, I invested 2 months of my summer vacation to research areas that were not addressed by others in the paper. While I was tracking down answers to many of my questions, it was my good fortune to established contact with Dr. G.P. Yeh of Fermilab, who in addition to authoring a useful review article concerning worldwide energy issues (“World Energy Transformation, July 2018, www.aps.org/units/fps/ newsletters/201807/world-energy.cfm) was also gracious enough to provide me with answers to some of my basic questions.

The goal of our white paper was twofold: to inventory NH’s renewable energy assets and investigate how these assets could be maximized, and also to identify paths to a 100% renewable energy future for NH. This was not, and could not be a comprehensive or definitive document due to the constraints of time and expert resources. However, I attempted to use the various renewable energy related submissions, as well as information related to energy needs, to project into the future how NH’s energy needs could be met with a combination of in-state renewable energy assets and imported renewable energy.

The outcome was a 55-page white paper (www.psomssichnh.com, Links, State Issues) which included many recommendations and tables identifying energy needs and possible energy sources. Some of the recommendations of the paper to NH policy-makers were:

  • Set more aggressive goals for NH’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), a goal of 25% by 2025 renewable energy for electricity needs is too low a bar,
  • Drive down Demand with increased energy efficiency programs,
  • Fully fund low-income energy efficiency audits,
  • Increase the net-metering cap, allowing more renewable energy generators to feed their energy into the grid and be properly compensated,
  • Join other Atlantic coast states on the federal board that awards offshore wind energy leases,
  • Join efforts to help create a nationwide carbon pricing system, expanding the current effort in New England of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) states which would put a realistic price on producing energy with fossil fuels.

One of the tables from our white paper shows how modest energy efficiency measures can significantly reduce energy use, while a second table provides predictions from 2030 to 2050 of energy generation that could be available from different renewable energy sources.

Table 1 demonstrates the impact of energy efficiency improvements reducing energy use by 2% each year, while at the same time allowing for overall energy use to rise by 1% a year. The calculations in this table were very simple and straightforward with the results good approximations that come close to numbers that a more sophisticated calculation would provide.

In this table the abbreviation R refers to residential use, while C/I refers to commercial and industrial use. Using data from 2016 which includes 11,000 [GWh] of electricity energy use and 45,107 [GWh] of thermal energy use, the increase in energy use along with the reduction due to energy efficiency is shown from 2016 to 2050. Since the initial total energy in 2016 of 56,107 [GWh] includes the energy that is lost through generation and transmission, amounting to approx. 60% of the fuel energy, only 40% of the potential energy is actually delivered to a user. So that if a user saves 1 Wh of energy, the amount of fuel energy saved is 2.5 times that amount, that is 2.5 Wh of fuel energy equivalent. That is why the 6th column is labelled “Effective EE Savings incl. losses with x 2.5, [GWh]”. The impact of both the increased energy savings and the increased energy use is listed in the 7th column resulting in the “Total Energy Use”.

Table 1

The table shows that by 2025 the total energy use would only be 66% of the 2016 use, and would drop to 20% of the 2016 use by 2040, under the scenario proposed.

Table 8 lists predictions based on the contributions of the various types of renewable energy resources that NH could have available for electricity as a state, compared to electricity energy use in 2016 of 11,000 [GWh]. Since it is assumed that by 2030 battery storage will allow energy generators to provide energy all of the time using storage, a capacity factor of CF=1 was assumed. Table 8 also shows the potential by 2030 of NH generating as much as 300% of the 2016 electricity energy use, and even 1055% by 2040.

Table 8

After the completion of the white paper, including sign-off by all contributors, a press conference was held at the NH State House on Oct. 12, 2018 with good state-wide media coverage. One important conclusion of our study was that our state should increase its focus on energy efficiency programs, while developing promising renewable energy resources such as offshore and onshore wind energy along with solar and large hydro energy. Small hydropower and biomass energy, while contributing less, serve other important needs of the state, in particular fuel diversity along with environmental and economic benefits.

The white paper gave a number of political candidates the opportunity to refer to our material during their 2018 NH election campaigns. In addition, we are expecting that the new members of the ST&E committee will use our white paper as a starting point for planning actions on renewable energy issues in the near future.

During my undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, our physics professors repeatedly underscored the message (perhaps because of the history of sciences in Germany) that as scientists we have a moral duty to ensure that our science is used primarily to improve people’s lives and not just for commercial benefit.

I believe that as scientists we are obligated to take the lead on scientific issues. Not necessarily to always insist that we are right, but to ensure that important scientific issues and facts are placed in front of the public and policy-makers for consideration and perhaps to help chart the future.

Fortunately, we still have quite a lot of credibility as a profession and the younger scientific generation seems to be very excited about the opportunity to help resolve climate change challenges, promote more renewable energy and energy efficiency and protect the environment for all of us. That is very encouraging.


Copy of our white paper is available at: www.psomssichnh.com/ Links/State issues

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.