Will governor sign Burgess BioPower bill?

Barbara Tetreault

Read the original post in The Berlin Sun here.

BERLIN — The bill designed to keep the 75-megawatt Burgess BioPower biomass plant operating is expected to reach the governor’s desk soon and Gov. Chris Sununu is being lobbied by supporters and opponents of the measure. Sununu has not revealed his position on the bill and his office did not return inquiries about how the governor is leaning.

House Bill 142 grants the biomass plant financial relief from having to repay $50 million the plant has accumulated over the $100 million cap on overmarket costs established in its purchase power agreement with Eversource.

The bill had bipartisan support in the Legislature, passing the House by a 269-109 and the Senate on a voice vote. Arguing in supporting of the bill are North Country officials, the N.H. Timberland Owners Association and the Androscoggin Valley Chamber of Commerce. Opposing it are the N.H. Business and Industry Association, the Sierra Club and the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy.

Burgess BioPower officials testified the biomass plant will go bankrupt if the bill fails to pass and with it nearly $70 million in annual economic activity for the state will be lost. The plant purchases over 800,000 tons of low grade wood annually and the company said it supports more than 240 jobs both directly and indirectly.

Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier said failure of the bill will be devastating for the city and surrounding communities. Burgess BioPower annually provides 12 percent of the city’s property tax revenues, 25 percent of its water fees and 10 percent of its sewer fees.

“The community cannot afford to make up over $2 million in tax revenue and water rates will skyrocket. Significant layoffs here and big tax increases for the rest of Coos’ communities in county tax is inevitable,” said Grenier.

The Androscoggin Valley Chamber of Commerce is urging its members “to send a strong message to the governor that the Legislature got it right with HB 142, and he should allow the bill to become law.”

The N.H. Timberland Owners Association testified the biomass plant is critical for the forest products industry as the state’s largest buyer of low grade wood. The plant allows large timberland owners to manage their lands and keep them open for public use.

Also testifying in favor of the bill was N.H. Senate President Jeb Bradley, who pointed out that it produces enough stable renewable energy to power 67,000 homes. The plant is the largest electric generator in the state running on locally sourced fuel. In a recent editorial, Rep. Eamon Kelley and Coos County Commissioner Robert Theberge argue Burgess BioPower diversifies the region’s energy portfolio. The pair point out the region is currently dependent on natural gas for energy production.

The bill has also attracted strong opposition.

Last week, Andrew Cline, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, urged Sununu to veto the bill. Cline argued that while the biomass plant is a large taxpayer and important business for Berlin “it is not an important player in the state’s overall economy.”

Cline called the biomass plant “a subsidized jobs program for the Northern New England timber industry, disguised as a power plant” and said if the bill become law the ratepayer subsidies would continue indefinitely. The editorial has drawn attention because Gov. Sununu’s brother, James Sununu, chairs the Bartlett Center’s board of directors.

The N.H. Business and Industry Association also opposes the bill, arguing it artificially inflates energy prices to preserve one business. The BIA estimates the subsidy received by Burgess BioPower adds $3 to monthly residential electric bills.

Sarah Boone, vice president for public affairs for the plant’s owner, said there are some misconceptions about the bill. She said one reason she feels the bill had such broad support in the Legislature is because it ends the subsidies.

“It’s very clear that it ends any sort of ratepayer support, and it puts all of the responsibility on Burgess to operate going forward. It simply clarifies the repayment question that originated from the original bill,” she said.

Boone said there is an excellent team working at the plant and she is confident passage of the bill will allow the plant to operate long into the future.

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