When it comes to New England’s base-load power supply, the minimum amount of total power we need to keep our electric grid running each day, there is an alarm sounding. Unfortunately, we cannot afford to just hit snooze and go back to bed. We have to wake up. We must protect all New Hampshire’s power plants, including Burgess BioPower in Berlin.
Last year, Texas was tragically forced into rolling power blackouts due to a catastrophic failure of its power infrastructure. In fairness to Texas, they aren’t used to prolonged cold snaps driving up demand for electricity every winter. In the Granite State, we are used to winters that test our electric power production and distribution systems. Yet some of our recent actions have undercut the reliability of our power grid.
We have been running along a razor’s edge this winter and in recent winters past. New Hampshire, and indeed all of New England has become overly reliant on burning natural gas for more than half of our base-load power supply. But we have simultaneously limited the pipeline capacity that would bring more natural gas to heat and power our homes. That means there is no way to bring in more natural gas when temperatures drop, and demand rises.
During the winter, we use more natural gas to heat our homes and less for electricity production. When natural gas supply gets tight, we need to start burning dirtier fossil fuels like oil and coal to generate power. Beyond the environmental impacts, those sources are not always available to plug the holes. Facilities shut down and energy imports can be limited, and if those things were to happen during a period of prolonged cold, we would quickly find ourselves in the very same difficult situation Texas faced last year.
As Gordon van Welie, president and CEO of ISO-New England, which controls the northeast’s power grid, wrote in a letter to industry officials and policy makers earlier this winter, “These are not hypotheticals.”
Potential brownouts due to short energy supply nearly happened this winter in New England, according to ISO-New England. We have just been fortunate power plants have stayed running during our coldest periods. But that is how close we are and have been. How much longer shall we roll the dice?
It is critical we preserve all our base-load power producers, like Burgess BioPower. Aside from supporting 240 jobs and $70 million in annual statewide economic activity, the 75-megawatt, wood-fired power plant is the fourth-largest power generator in the Granite State, delivering more than 500,000 megawatt hours of sustainable, reliable, and clean power to the grid each year. That output alone would be enough to power approximately 67,000 New Hampshire homes each year.
Biomass power is good for the woods, too. Burgess BioPower uses low-grade wood, like branches, wood chips and sawdust — effectively the byproducts of a tree harvest that would typically be left behind. Rather than letting those branches rot on the forest floor, facilities like Burgess turn that byproduct into wood chips to be burned for electricity. Burgess purchases more than 800,000 tons of low-grade wood each year, supporting the livelihood of foresters statewide and encouraging sustainable forestry management practices.
By allowing us to diversify our energy sources and reduce our over reliance on natural gas, Burgess BioPower plays a critical role in securing our energy future. This is why I joined a bipartisan group of senators to introduce Senate Bill 271, which directs the Public Utilities Commission to consider the importance of keeping Burgess BioPower operating. We cannot afford to give up the economic, energy, and environmental benefits Burgess BioPower provides. The New Hampshire Senate just gave SB 271 its unanimous approval and it now heads to the House for consideration.
Burgess provides a tremendous value that transcends cost, and we need to preserve this resource to support our overall base-load power capacity needs — so we do not have to turn off the lights.
Texas got caught flat-footed last year as perhaps policymakers and industry officials moved too slowly in adapting the state’s power infrastructure to be ready to withstand the kind of winter weather we should be used to.
I urge my colleagues in the New Hampshire House to support Senate Bill 271 and avoid a Texas-sized mistake in New Hampshire.
Sen. Erin Hennessey (R-Littleton) represents Senate District 1.