Lawmakers uphold biomass plant veto

By HADLEY BARNDOLLAR

The New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 10-26-2023 5:57 PM

House lawmakers on Thursday sustained Gov. Chris Sununu’s veto of continued subsidies for Berlin’s Burgess BioPower plant.

House Bill 142 would have helped keep the 10-year-old wood-burning facility afloat by providing a critical financial extension. It was passed by lawmakers this session with bipartisan support, but Thursday’s vote on Sununu’s veto of the bill fell short of the two-thirds majority needed for override, 194-159.

The facility was approved by the Public Utilities Commission in 2011 to sell power to the company now known as Eversource. But the PUC imposed a condition: The facility could not exceed $100 million in total over-market costs – meaning that it could not charge Eversource more than $100 million over the cost to buy the same amount of energy from traditional sources. If it did, Burgess would be required to pay back any amounts it charged in excess of the $100 million total.

Burgess BioPower began exceeding the $100 million limit in 2017, and since then, lawmakers have been passing legislation to exempt it from paying back the excess.

Supporters of the plant say it provides needed energy diversity during difficult winter months and bolsters the timber industry in an area reeling from the decline of paper mills – even though the energy production is less financially efficient than traditional energy sources.

But Sununu felt the state had been too hospitable to the private sector business for too long, and that it should stop keeping Burgess BioPower afloat. In his August veto message, he said the plant has been “enormously expensive for New Hampshire ratepayers,” and cited more than $200 million in subsidies since 2014, a number that others have since contested, including Berlin’s mayor.

“All of these overmarket costs are paid by approximately 530,000 Eversource customers, forcing those families and businesses to bear additional unnecessary financial burden on top of already historically high electric bills,” Sununu wrote.

Signing HB 142, he claimed, would allow Burgess BioPower to continue collecting millions in ratepayer subsidies every month, without a plan for long-term solvency.

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During Thursday’s House session, Berlin Democrat Rep. Henry Noël warned lawmakers that sustaining Sununu’s veto would cause the plant to close and “hundreds” of people to lose jobs. He questioned the framing of Sununu’s veto message, pointing to a Department of Energy audit completed last year that confirmed no money beyond what is allowed in the power purchase agreement has been paid to Burgess by ratepayers.

Rep. Corinne Cascadden, a Berlin Democrat, said Burgess BioPower has contributed more than $700 million to New Hampshire’s economy.