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Timber And Renewables Unite In Energy Veto Fight, Despite Environmental Concerns

Annie Ropeik

State legislators vote Thursday on whether to override two controversial vetoes of bills about energy.

One would subsidize biomass power plants. The other would expand net metering in New Hampshire.

Governor Chris Sununu says both bills would cost residents and businesses too much.

But supporters from the state’s established timber industry and its newer renewable energy sector disagree.

Tucked in the woods outside the town of Antrim is the oldest continuously-running paper mill in the country. Monadnock Paper is one of three mills left in New Hampshire.

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR
Brian Maloy walks among stacks of pulp and recycled paper fiber inside Monadnock Paper.

Environmental services manager Brian Maloy says they make medical packaging, wallpaper and other specialty products that all start as wood pulp – including some from trees grown here in state.

“They take all the bark off the wood, then they break it up into chips and put it through a process to separate the actual fiber in the wood,” Maloy says, ripping a fluffy corner from one of the thick white sheets of pulp stacked high in the factory. “And they make great big sheets of this stuff which is basically a whole bunch of paper fibers.”

This isn't the only use for the timber that covers New Hampshire and supports its $2.4-billion forest products industry. Low-grade wood chips can also fuel biomass power plants.

Now, those plants and their whole industry – factories like Monadnock Paper – say their futures hinge on legislators overturning a veto Gov. Chris Sununu handed down in June.

The bill he rejected would have required utilities to buy, at a discount, more energy from wood- and trash-burning power plants.

That would have added several dollars a month to ratepayers' bills for the next three years – on top of rates that are already some of the highest in the country. Sununu says low-income families and New Hampshire manufacturers can't afford that kind of increase.

"We have to understand the true impacts of allowing that legislation to go forward,” he told reporters after an energy roundtable with business leaders in August. “I won't do it. And we're going to fight it all the way."

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR
State Timberland Owners Association president Jasen Stock addresses workers from his industry at a strategy meeting about the vetoes in July.

Soon after the veto, the timber industry was ready for a fight, too.

They packed into a logging warehouse in Bristol in July, with big trucks parked outside and sawdust underfoot.

“We think we have an awesome shot at overturning these vetoes,” said Jasen Stock, the president of the state Timberland Owners Association, standing at a podium in front of the crowd. “That’s why we wanted to have this meeting tonight – to give you the information, give you the background for how we’re going do that.”

Stock says biomass provides a market for the low-grade wood once used mainly by paper mills. He says loggers have to harvest those trees to keep forests – and the economy that relies on them – vibrant.

He also says biomass is a renewable fuel – but that's more complicated than it sounds.

Trees can be replanted, and will eventually absorb the carbon that burning wood gives off. But critics, like the Sierra Club and Toxics Action Center, say cutting down any tree does more harm than good – and that biomass plants are some of the worst polluters in the state.

They also strongly oppose the trash-burning power plant in Concord that would share the benefits from the biomass bill.

The campaign to revive the biomass bill has produced a split among clean energy advocates – because the bill has become intertwined with another measure Sununu vetoed.

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR
A turbine at Monadnock Paper helps power the factory and capture energy to net meter from four dams on the Contoocook River.

This second bill would raise the state's cap on large-scale net metering – which lets towns and factories like Monadnock Paper produce and sell their own renewable energy back onto the grid to help lower their bills.

Sununu calls it a handout to towns and energy developers.

"You want a good, broad portfolio of renewable energy – we know that,” he said at the August roundtable. “But as we do it, I've always said, we've got to make sure we understand the costs and who's paying for it."

The net metering bill wouldn't pass costs directly onto customers like the biomass bill would.

But Sununu has cast them together – and that's put the New Hampshire Sustainable Energy Association in the middle of a double veto override fight.

The SEA is a trade group that's big in favor of net metering, and has also traditionally supported biomass. They don't support burning trash for energy – but executive director Madeline Mineau says they've put that aside in order to back the bills together with the timber industry.

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR
Timber and renewables supporters demonstrated outside the Statehouse last week.

"Almost by the governor vetoing these two bills together, in the same veto message, it united us to join our forces together and to fight for the override on the vetoes of both these bills,” she said at a rally on the statehouse lawn last week.

The protest brought solar installers and clean energy activists to cheer alongside loggers and biomass plant workers.

At the front of the crowd was Shawn Hanson, who's been a logger for more than 30 years. He has a big beard and wore suspenders over a forest-green tank top.

On his arms are faded tattoos of animal tracks, trees, a wood chipper, and a grim reaper wielding a chainsaw, which he says is “what I’m gonna look like when I die.”

This summer has been tough for Hanson's business. Some of the state's biomass plants have gone idle as they wait on the veto vote, leaving Hanson with few buyers for the woodchips he’s been harvesting in Rindge.

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR
"That's what I'm gonna look like when I die," logger Shawn Hanson says of this tattoo.

“We went from working probably 60, 65 hours a week down to 40,” he says.

If the veto isn’t overturned and more biomass plants shut down, he says he could lose much more business.

The renewable energy industry is worried about the same thing. And aligning themselves with timber has earned them the support of many of Governor Sununu's fellow Republicans in the legislature.

They hope it'll win them enough votes to override both vetoes at the statehouse Thursday.

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.
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