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Gov. Sununu signs Burgess Biomass compromise into law

Cori Princell
/
NHPR

Editor's Note: This article was first published May 25. It was updated June 27 with the latest news.

Gov. Chris Sununu signed a compromise bill that would extend an agreement to help Berlin’s biomass power plant continue operating into law on Friday.

The Burgess biomass plant has long produced energy that’s more expensive than the market rate, and Eversource’s ratepayers have shouldered that burden.

The new law will allow Burgess to sell that more expensive power for another year, and would ensure Eversource could continue recovering those costs from ratepayers.

“The bill essentially takes the can and kicks it down the road for a year and preserves the status quo,” said Don Kreis, the state’s ratepayer advocate.

Ratepayers are still on the hook, Kreis said, but there’s a possibility that the current volatility of energy markets could make Burgess’s operations more economical.

Supporters of the plant, such as Senate Republican Jeb Bradley, say its operations are critical to the North Country’s forest economy.

“There's a jobs impact. There's an environmental impact. There's an energy impact. There is a cost to it, but I think it's a manageable cost,” he said.

In 2018, Sununu signed a bill that implemented a three-year suspension on a $100 million cap on the 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 cap suspension. With the amendment, that suspension would be extended, but the $58 million debt (a figure lawmakers provided) would not be forgiven.

Legislators have said, with this agreement in place, they’ll work on a long-term solution for that debt in the next session. House Republican Michael Vose said he plans to gather a group of stakeholders over the summer to brainstorm solutions.

Sarah Boone, a Burgess representative, said in a statement that this piece of legislation provides the plant “ the opportunity to work collaboratively with legislators and the New Hampshire Department of Energy” to develop a solution.

Though biomass is considered a renewable energy source, some environmental groups and scientists say it’s not always a climate-friendly way to generate electricity.

But Bradley, who introduced the original bill that would have forgiven the debt Burgess owes, says, as the cost of fossil fuels rises, there could be a more positive outlook for the plant. Much of New England’s electricity is produced using natural gas, which has become more expensive in the last year because of supply constraints and high demand.

Republican Representative Michael Harrington, who said the original bill gave too much leeway to the plant, says one solution would be for the present ownership to go out of business. Then, he says, if the plant is viable, someone else could buy it.

“If you look at power plants in New England, the overwhelming majority of them have been sold at least once,” Harrington said, using Londonderry’s natural gas plant as an example.

The extension of the agreement allowing Burgess to operate needs approval from the Public Utilities Commission. Legislators also agreed to jointly write a letter to the Public Utilities Commission highlighting the need to take up the issue quickly.

The law also requires the company to make financial information available to the state’s Department of Energy for an audit.

Updated: June 27, 2022 at 5:16 PM EDT
This story was updated on June 27 after Gov. Sununu signed SB 271 into law.
Updated: May 26, 2022 at 5:28 PM EDT
This story was updated on Thursday, May 26 to reflect House and Senate votes.
Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.
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