Eversource seeks to conceal Berlin biomass plant fiscal info

Utility asks NHPUC to keep payoff timeline confidential

Eversource is asking the state’s Public Utilities Commission not to disclose an estimate of when consumers will have paid $100 million extra for the electricity the company buys from the Burgess BioPower plant in Berlin.

The information would provide a look at the plant’s long-term viability, and that is important to the North Country because its burns wood chips, supporting the region’s logging industry. The plant’s owner has spent at least $40 million on wood chips since it opened in 2014, according to Sarah Boone, a vice president at based Cate Street Capital. The Portsmouth-based company owns Cate Street Capital Holdings Group, which owns the facility, according to court records.

Here’s why the $100 million figure is important.

As previously reported, in 2011, the PUC approved a contract that allows Eversource to buy electricity at a rate that can be considerably higher than what it would pay on the open market. But that stops once Eversource has paid $100 million more than the market price, according to the contract.

At that point, anything over that $100 million is deducted from the future payments that the plant receives from Eversource. That has the potential to erode the plant’s current profitability.

Changing that $100 million limit would probably require legislative action or perhaps reconsideration by the PUC.

Cate Street Capital’s Boone has said the company is monitoring that balance and “should the need arise we will look at all options available to us. Continuing to keep Burgess BioPower successfully operating is of vital importance to Coos County.”

Bad deal for consumers?

The $100 million extra cost is being passed along to Eversource customers who buy their electricity directly from the utility. So the public has a right to the information, says Consumer Advocate D. Maurice Kreis, the state watchdog for utility consumers.

Kreis also argues that the information is important because it provides a look at how government worked in 2011, when the PUC was considering the “contentious” contract.

The commissioners at the time (Thomas Getz, Clifton Below and Amy Ignatius) approved the unusual and controversial contract over the objection of some PUC staffers and then-Consumer Advocate Meredith Hatfield.

Hatfield and the staffers warned that the contract was a bad deal for consumers, who could wind up paying higher electric bills to subsidize the plant’s operation and the logging industry.

At the time, advocates, including many politicians, argued that the PUC should approve the contract because it would provide both green energy and a much-needed boost to the economy of the North Country.

Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier praised “the enormity of the economic benefits to our local economy in terms wood fuel purchases” and urged its approval.

A few months later, Hatfield lost her job when the Republican-controlled Executive Council refused to reappoint her. Among those who voted against her was Gov. Chris Sununu, then an executive councilor.

At the time, Sununu told NH Public Radio that “the consumer advocate’s role is not to be a bully, and I’m not saying Meredith was, but you have to be very careful, the eye of your prize can’t be just beating up on PSNH.”

Hatfield now works in Massachusetts. Getz is employed by a law firm that does work for Eversource, Below works in property management and Ignatius is a Superior Court judge.

Private decision-making

The confidentiality issue came up at a routine PUC hearing in June to review Eversource’s rates for the second half of the year.

Eversource official Frederick B. White was asked how much extra the company expects to pay Burgess BioPower and when the $100 million limit would be reached, according to a redacted transcript.

White answered the questions.

That led to Eversource lawyer Matthew J. Fossum arguing that the answers were confidential.

PUC hearings examiner Suzanne Amidon and Kreis disagreed.

But PUC chairman Martin Honigberg said the information would be temporarily treated as confidential and redacted from the transcript to be posted on the agency’s website. Honigberg also said the PUC was “lucky in that there’s no members of the public here” and there was time for the PUC and Eversource to work out a fair solution.

But it wasn’t worked out, and Eversource filed a motion seeking confidentiality. It argued that the law allows “confidential, commercial or financial information” to be kept from the public. Providing it would “disclose information about the finances and operations of the plant.”

The PUC will decide the issue in private, said PUC lawyer Anne Ross.

“Our deliberations are not public,” she said. “We have an exemption from the right-to-know open meetings requirements for our deliberations,” she said.

She added that the decision would be explained in the order, but she wasn’t sure when the three commissioners would be discussing the matter.

This article is a collaboration between NH Business Review and InDepthNH.org, a nonprofit news website published online by the NH Center for Public Interest Journalism.

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