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NH lawmakers uphold Burgess BioPower plant veto

The Burgess Biopower plant in Berlin, New Hampshire.
Dan Tuohy
/
NHPR
The Burgess Biopower plant in Berlin, New Hampshire, on Sept. 22, 2023. Dan Tuohy photo.

This story was originally produced by the New Hampshire Bulletin, an independent local newsroom that allows NHPR and other outlets to republish its reporting.

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.

Reacting to Thursday’s vote by lawmakers, Burgess BioPower spokesperson Sarah Boone released a statement saying the company is “deeply disappointed,” and that failure to override the governor’s veto “will create serious financial events for the forest products industry, the city of Berlin, and Burgess.”

“Despite today’s vote, we continue to believe the legislature got it right with HB 142, which developed a new model for Burgess’s continued operation,” Boone said. “HB 142 was a result of more than two years of collaborative, bipartisan work between legislative leaders and the NH Department of Energy.

Boone said the company is “evaluating the veto’s impacts and considering its next steps.”

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.

“The governor is asking us to blame an award-winning, state-of-the-art power plant who came to us for help and which both the House and Senate agreed that such help was appropriate, indeed, necessary,” Noël said.

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

“We made the right decision this winter when we overwhelmingly passed House Bill 142,” she said.

In favor of sustaining Sununu’s veto, Rep. Michael Harrington, a Republican from Strafford, referenced a “never-ending series of bailout bills for the Burgess biomass plant.” He argued the plant is not an efficient way to make electricity, and passing HB 142 “does nothing but delay the inevitable.”

Harrington said Burgess accounts for .2 percent of capacity on New England’s power grid.

After the House sustained his veto, Sununu thanked lawmakers for “siding with New Hampshire ratepayers today and voting against the continuation of subsidies for a company that has failed time and time again to find a stable financial model.”

Bulletin reporter Ethan Dewitt contributed to this story.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

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