September 09. 2018 11:05PM

Another View -- Catherine Corkery and James McCaffrey: Biomass bill sells out NH residents

By Catherine Corkery and James McCaffrey

GOV. CHRIS SUNUNU’S veto of the latest bailout for the polluting biomass industry should be upheld by the New Hampshire Legislature on Thursday. Like last year’s bailout, Senate Bill 365 demonstrates that industrial-scale wood-burning power plants simply cannot survive without wasteful and ongoing subsidies from ratepayers and the public.

To make matters worse, industry lobbyists persuaded lawmakers to expand the bill to prop up the Wheelabrator garbage incinerator in Concord at the last minute and with virtually no public review. The Legislature now has a clear choice before it: Continue to saddle New Hampshire ratepayers with extra costs to keep these polluting relics online or chart a course toward a clean renewable energy future by providing support for truly clean technologies like efficiency, offshore wind, and solar.

Currently, about 70 percent of the “renewable” energy produced in New England is not actually “clean” energy. Instead this power comes from dirty and polluting fuel sources, namely burning trash (about 30 percent) and wood (about 40 percent) to generate electricity. Yet despite trash and wood dominating the renewable fuel mix, the biomass industry claims it cannot survive without SB 365, which will force ratepayers to pay an estimated $75 million above market rates over the next three years — on top of other existing biomass bailouts — “to provide fuel diversity” in New Hampshire.

One only has to gaze east to see exactly where this massive corporate welfare program is headed. In Maine, the biomass industry has bled taxpayers and ratepayers for an astonishing quarter-billion dollars over the last 10 years, and still the industry keeps coming back for more handouts.

With the decline of the forest products industry, the timber lobby is placing its bets on subsidized biomass energy. Industry claims they only use “thinnings” and waste wood from managed forests. However, studies show that regardless of the source woody biomass is carbon-intensive and highly polluting. Moreover, industrial scale biomass plants require huge inputs of wood, often from whole trees.

The massive 75 megawatt Burgess BioPower plant in Berlin, for instance, which has a lucrative power-purchasing agreement with Eversource that is expected to cost ratepayers more than $100 million at above-market rates, burns whole logs at a rate of 113 tons per hour. This is the equivalent of clear-cutting more than one acre of New Hampshire’s forests every hour.

Standing forests serve a vital role maintaining our watersheds, providing wildlife habitat, promoting tourism, beautifying our viewsheds, and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. Despite aggressive lobbying from the timber industry, industry-scale bioenergy is neither a wise nor sustainable use of our forests.

According to federal data, burning wood is one of the most expensive, polluting and inefficient technologies for producing electricity, exceeded only by garbage incineration. Both biomass and trash burning facilities emit more carbon dioxide, soot, and most other conventional air pollutants at the stack per megawatt hour than even coal. They are also major sources of mercury and other heavy metals, volatile organic chemicals, and carcinogens, including dioxins and furans.

Emissions from these facilities harm the health of surrounding communities, the environment, and our climate, and they both produce tons of toxic ash that requires disposal. In contrast, investments in clean, renewable energy — such as through the net metering bill SB 446 that Gov. Sununu also vetoed — would have long-term benefits for New Hampshire residents and ratepayers and can also help create new sustainable jobs in the clean energy economy. Unlike the biomass industry, which continues to return to the public trough for more handouts, the cost of wind and solar power development continues to decline as its use scales up.

New Hampshire is a net exporter of electricity, yet our residents and businesses are burdened with some of the highest electricity rates in the nation. Residential and commercial electricity rates are 50 percent higher than the national average, and industrial rates are nearly double. Propping up a failing timber industry by forcing consumers to buy overpriced and polluting biomass energy is not sustainable from either an economic or an environmental perspective.

The Legislature should uphold the veto of SB 365 and instead find ways to maximize the value of New Hampshire’s standing forests and expand employment opportunities in economically hard-hit areas, rather than send our forests up in smoke.

Catherine Corkery is director of the New Hampshire Sierra Club. James McCaffrey is New England legislative director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity.