Biomass subsidy bill narrowly dies

The New Hampshire House Wednesday was unable to override Gov. Chris Sununu's veto of a bill continuing subsidies for six, small wood-fired power plants including the one pictured here, the DG Whitefield biomass plant in Whitefield. Supporters were five votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto. 

WHITEFIELD — Citing the failure of Eversource to come to terms on a new power-purchase agreement with six of New Hampshire’s biomass energy producers, four producers are suspending fuel purchases and operation.

Douglas York, manager of the DG Whitefield biomass plant in Whitefield, said his facility would cease operations as of today, adding that a sister plant in Springfield would do so on April 13.

Meanwhile, Hunter Carbee, the wood-energy representative for the NH Timber Harvesting Council, said both the Pinetree-Bethlehem and Pinetree-Tamworth plants stopped buying biomass on March 29.

He added that the Bridgewater Power Co. is “limping along” but both Burgess Biopower in Berlin and Granite Shore Power's Schiller Station in Portsmouth, which Eversource divested in 2018, remain open.

Under Senate Bill 365, which became law last year over a veto by Gov. Chris Sununu, Eversource and other utilities were required to buy electricity from six NH biomass plants and one trash-to-energy plant at above-market rates for three years.

Last November, however, a group called the New England Ratepayers Association filed a petition with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission alleging that the state exceeded its constitutional authority by acting on a matter of interstate commerce.

In January, the NH Public Utilities Commission said it cannot act on an agreement between the six biomass plants and Eversource, because the sides have not reached an agreement.

Eversource Spokesman William Hinkle on Thursday in an e-mail said that despite a backdrop of “confusion and uncertainty, we continued working to implement the goals of the New Hampshire legislature while also ensuring that customers are protected if the law is invalidated by federal authorities.”

He pointed out that the PUC “did not guarantee that the above-market costs could be recovered by Eversource if SB 365 were found unconstitutional, and instead suggested that the plants and Eversource voluntarily develop a customer-protection mechanism until the constitutionality questions are resolved.”

He said $75 million in above-market costs is at stake for ratepayers.

Eversource has proposed that the above-market costs “be placed in an escrow account until the constitutional questions around the law are resolved,” said Hinkle, “but the wood-generating plants have repeatedly rejected this prudent approach.”

York said the decision to suspend operations in Whitefield was mainly due to the lack of a contract with Eversource. He said he will try to keep the Whitefield plant’s 21 full-time and one part-time employees on for the short-term, hopefully until a solution can be found to the current impasse.

The Whitefield plant works with three dozen biomass producers, York said, most from New Hampshire.

According to research conducted by the Timberland Owners’ Association and Plymouth State University, the biomass industry is worth $254 million a year to the state, said Carbee.

“We’re talking thousands of jobs by the time you reach out to everyone who is impacted,” he said. “People are going to lose jobs.”

New Hampshire’s biomass producers deliver some 800 tractor-trailer loads a week to energy plants, said Carbee, and while the good news is that there are paper companies in Maine that will take some of that product, “they cannot handle it all.”

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