After Sununu’s veto of rate subsidy, future of Berlin’s biomass plant is unclear

Berlin BioPower says it's evaluating options in wake of action
Burgess Biopower Copy
(Chris Jensen/NH Public Radio)

Gov. Chris Sununu has vetoed an effort to help keep a biomass plant in Berlin afloat, potentially ending almost a decade of ratepayer subsidies.

In his veto message, Sununu said the plant has failed twice to find a sustainable financial model for operating, and that has cost ratepayers over $200 million.

“Time and again the Burgess management and ownership team has made bad promise after bad promise to our elected officials,” Sununu wrote. “The only thing we have to show for it are more empty promises and false hope to the City of Berlin.”

Though the bill passed with bipartisan support, top Republicans applauded the governor’s decision.

“The Legislature has given Burgess multiple chances,” House Majority Leader Jason Osborne said, “and we have passed multiple bills over the last five years with the intent to help the management team at Burgess find a long term solution.”

For years, the Burgess biomass plant has produced energy that’s more expensive than the market rate, and Eversource customers have footed the bill.

Supporters of the plant have said its work is critical to the North Country’s forest economy, arguing that it provides needed energy and jobs. The plant has the capacity to produce 70 megawatts of electricity by burning low-grade wood.

The Seabrook Nuclear Station, by comparison, has the capacity to produce more than 15 times as much electricity, though Burgess is the state’s largest generator of renewable energy.

But its contract with Eversource, which dates back to when the company was still known as Public Service of New Hampshire, has been controversial since the beginning. It was always expected to cost ratepayers more than buying electricity at the market price.

Exceeding the cap

In 2018, Sununu signed a bill that allowed Burgess to continue producing its more expensive electricity above a previous cap on the cost of that, which was set at $100 million.

Burgess hit $100 million in 2019 and continued selling electricity. Sununu suspended the cap again in 2022.

This year, House and Senate lawmakers agreed on a plan that would have forgiven the debt the plant owes to ratepayers on top of that $100 million cap, which is expected to total about $70 million by the end of November. The company would have had to repay any additional costs it accrued above the $100 million cap going forward.

Rep. Michael Vose, an Epping Republican who sponsored the bill, said the legislation was aimed at addressing the “impossible situation” that repayment would have put the plant in.

In a statement, Burgess BioPower spokesperson Sarah Boone said the company was evaluating the impacts of the veto and considering what to do next.

“We are certainly disappointed in HB 142’s veto,” she said. “It creates a serious financial event for the company and the entire northern New Hampshire economy.”

Boone said the bill would have represented a sustainable path forward while ending future ratepayer subsidies.

Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier also expressed his disappointment.

“It’s a vital piece of Berlin’s economy that that plant continues operation. And it’s a vital piece of the wood basket economy in all of New Hampshire, but particularly in Coös County,” he said. “This is kind of a stake in the heart to the economy of Coös County.”

Grenier also said the calculation of the plant’s $200 million in subsidies was “disingenuous.”

“I suspect that my electric bill will not go down a dollar or a dollar and a half a month,” he said.

Democratic Sen. David Watters, of Dover, said he was disappointed in the governor’s decision, saying the bill would have addressed the plant’s debt down payment while still allowing them to produce power.

“I am committed to working with my colleagues, from both sides of the aisle, and Governor Sununu to develop a bipartisan solution that will address Burgess’ debt while avoiding the downshifting of costs to New Hampshire taxpayers,” he said.

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