In a House committee hearing on Burgess biomass bill, legislators look toward long-term solutions

A New Hampshire house committee approved a bill Tuesday extending an agreement that helps Berlin’s Burgess biomass power plant continue to operate for another year.

Included in that bill was a new amendment that would significantly change the Senate’s bill passed in March. Their version would have forgiven a debt Burgess owed to New Hampshire ratepayers, after years of producing electricity at a higher price than the wholesale market, but the House-amended bill would not forgive that debt.

Some raised concerns about the Senate version of the bill, including the state’s consumer advocate, Don Kreis. He said that that version of the bill would have unfairly shouldered the burden of high electricity costs on Eversource customers.

“Residential ratepayers have paid enough. And by enough I mean overall in excess of $2 billion dollars,” the amount Kreis said Eversource customers have paid to help keep wood-burning power plants running since the 1980s.

And the plant’s future could be uncertain. It’s been costly to operate in the past, and some scientists and advocates debate the environmental sustainability of biomass as a renewable energy resource.

But supporters of previous versions of the bill have said the plant’s operations are a core part of the North Country’s economy, and a reliable source of renewable energy for New Hampshire. According to Burgess, the plant is the largest source of renewable energy generation in New England. Burgess says forgiving the debt would allow them to continue operating.

In 2018, Gov. Chris Sununu signed a bill that implemented a three-year suspension on a $100 million cap on the amount costs Burgess could accrue for producing electricity above the market rate.

Burgess hit that cap in 2019, but continued selling electricity at above-market rates under the extension. With the amendment, the cap would be extended, but the $58 million debt (a figure lawmakers provided) would not be forgiven. Kreis is supportive of that compromise.

“Anything I can do to prevent that bill being imposed on Eversource’s ratepayers is something I’m going to support,” he said.

The amended bill would also require the company to provide financial records for an audit by the state’s Department of Energy. The company has already made some of its financial documents – which show they’re nearly breaking even – public through proceedings at the Public Utilities Commission.

House Republican Michael Vose acknowledged the amendment, which he introduced, would prolong a solution for one more year. But, he said, that would give leaders the time to try to come up with a long-term fix for the biomass plant and the role it plays in the North Country’s economy. Vose promised to take on the issue personally.

“I personally, should I be fortunate enough to get reelected to this legislature, will undertake a major effort to come up with a permanent solution to this problem with legislation next year,” he said.

Sarah Boone, vice president of public affairs at Burgess, said that though the bill has changed significantly, it would still allow Burgess to continue operating.

“It does allow us to continue to bring all of the benefits that we currently provide to New Hampshire as we look toward working on a long-term solution with all of the various stakeholders involved,” she said. Among those benefits, Boone said, are jobs, a market for forest products and energy security.

Boone was optimistic about the legislature’s promise to take up the issues Burgess faces. But ultimately, she said, the debt accumulated after 2019 will remain an issue.

“The most significant obstacle in our path is resolution of that debt,” she said.



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