City making final push for Burgess Biopower bill

The original post can be read here.

Barbara Tetreault

Oct 18, 2023

BERLIN — The future of the Burgess BioPower biomass plant is at stake next Thursday, Oct. 26, when the legislature will vote to override Gov. Sununu’s veto of a bill designed to keep the plant operating. City and company officials are making a final push to persuade the legislature to override the governor’s veto and pass House Bill 142.

The city council Monday night voted to send a letter to all 400 members of the legislature, urging them to vote to override. Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier was in Concord Tuesday meeting with House Speaker Sherman Packard to discuss the financial devastation the plant closing will have on Berlin and the local economy.

Figures compiled by the city show Burgess BioPower provides 16 percent of the Berlin’s total property tax revenues, 40 percent of its Water Works revenue, and 20 percent of the city’s annual sewer fees.

“Burgess is an outstanding example of what a great corporate partner can do for a struggling city,” the letter stated, noting the plant was built after the closing of the Fraser Paper mill in Berlin.

In addition, Burgess BioPower is the state’s biggest buyer of low grade wood, purchasing almost 800,000 tons of biomass annually from 150 towns spread across the state’s ten counties. An economic study estimated the plant generates $70 million annually in economic activity and supports 240 jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Veto Day was originally scheduled to take place in January but Packard two weeks ago changed the date to Oct. 26. He said he made the change after hearing from a number of House members who wanted the legislature to finish its work before the new year and address bills “whose outcomes may be time sensitive.”

Sarah Boone, senior vice president, corporate affairs for CS Operations, said they are happy that the speaker moved veto override day up to October. If the bill is not overridden, Burgess BioPower next month would have to start repaying $60 million in overmarket costs that exceeded the $100 million cap allowed in the 20-year agreement with Eversource. HB 142 makes it clear the company does not have to repay the $60 million, which Burgess has said is not financially feasible for the company.

Boone said Burgess BioPower is optimistic the veto will be overridden, pointing out the bill was approved by strong margins in in committee and by both the House and Senate. She stressed that HB 142 will end taxpayer support for the biomass plant and all future financial risk will be on the company. She added that the bill will not raise future electric costs for residents since the $60 million has already been raised.

Grenier said the city is working very hard to override the veto but noted a two-thirds majority vote is required to override.

“It is extremely difficult to garner the two-thirds necessary,” he said.

Boone provided an information sheet reporting that HB 142 provides the basis for a new operating model for the biomass plant. While the power purchase agreement requires Burgess to sell 100 percent of the energy it generates to Eversource, the company said it continues to pursed new strategies and scenarios. One of the scenarios being pursued is a district heating plan that would reducing heating costs for municipal and school buildings, low income housing, and businesses in Berlin by as much as 50 percent. The company successfully partnered with the city in attracting a $19.5 million federal RAISE grant to redevelop the city’s downtown and add a snow melt system using heated hot water from the biomass plant.

Burgess BioPower said it has also sought to attract businesses to co-locate on its property including a commercial greenhouse, a landfill gas facility, solar development, and cybercurrency mining and is currently discussing biochar production. The fact the facility is located on the former mill site with a history of environmental damage from the papermaking process has limited potential uses of the surrounding property. The company argues the plant represents “the highest and best use of the infrastructure and helps maintain the city’s heritage as the “City that Trees Built.”

The 75-megawatt biomass plant is the state’s largest renewable energy generator and has 10 years remaining on its 20-year purchase power agreement with Eversource. The company explains that when it entered into the contract, Eversource (then Public Service of NH) still owned its own generating facilities. The power from Burgess was used as part of the utility’s default service mix, providing a price-stable hedge against market fluctuations. But Eversource was required by the legislature to divest its generating plants. Eversource now re-sells the power it buys from Burgess BioPower into the day-ahead market. Any difference between the contract price and the re-sale price is recovered from ratepayers through the Stranded Cost Recovery Charge.

Burgess BioPower said it has no control over how its power is used and said the impact on ratepayers could be reduced or eliminated if its power was used differently. Because the contract price is fixed, Burgess does not benefit when market prices skyrocket.

If the biomass plant stops operating, the company said the “most likely outcome is a prolonged legal and regulatory process followed by a demolition and scrap sale.”

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