Time running out on North Country power plant bill

Lawmakers spent last week hammering out a deal on a bill to decide the fate of three North Country power plant projects, five existing wood-fired plants and the loggers who want to supply them with low-grade wood.

A much-lobbied and much amended House Bill 1690 briefly died in conference committee May 19, but Deputy House Speaker Mike O’Neil, R-Hampton, pledged to enter the same text as separate legislation this Wednesday in the last floor session of the term.

The bill’s newest wording would block Public Service of New Hampshire from building or buying a power plant in Coos County with a state-guaranteed 9.6 percent return on the capital investment. But the regulated utility could add a wood-fired plant as a merchant generator that sells wholesale electricity on the daily New England spot market. PSNH investors would have to bear all of the risk.

Lobbyists and reporters crowded the hall outside legislative O’Neil was withheld his signature on HB 1690 because, he said, the committee was pushing for a last-minute Senate amendment to help the needy with fuel bills next winter. He insisted the rider broke a rule that bill add-ons must be germane to the original legislation.

The conference committee had already stripped out a controversial amendment to help fund a dental clinic in Tamworth for low-income patients

Friday morning Senate president Ted Gatsas said no bill is dead until it’s dead. But O’Neil said the Senate still had time to blink. The two men huddled at 2:59 p.m. Gatsas kept flourishing a pen as if to hand it to O’Neil, who never signed the agreement, and HB 1690 looked comatose.

But O’Neil soon told reporters he would introduce the conference committee’s wording under a new bill needing a two-thirds vote to suspend House rules. A simple majority on the merits could send it to the Senate minutes later.

“I’m very much in favor of the bill,” O’Neil said. “I just want to do it in the correct way.”

Here’s the paragraph that deeply affects Public Service and its competitors:

“Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, any person may, consistent with RSA 162-H, construct or acquire and operate an electric generation facility that employs renewable wood-fired energy and is located in Coos County. Construction or acquisition and operation of such a facility shall not be subsidized or otherwise financed through rate-base recovery or mandated purchases.”

PSNH spokesman Martin Murray said this language effectively bars his firm from building a proposed new plant. The utility had announced plans to buy or build near the empty Fraser Papers pulp mill in Berlin, perhaps using some of its infrastructure.

“This version of HB 1690 would not remove the legal barriers to our developing a project in the North Country,” Murray said after all the maneuvering on the measure. “Cost recovery through our rates is the only financing available to Public Service. It would let the independent power companies go forward, but they don’t need new legislation to do that. We’d be taken out of the ballgame.”

Meanwhile, Whitefield Power and Light announced this month it plans to buy the 33-megawatt, wood-fired power plant in the empty mill. New Energy Capital and Tamarack Energy plan to partner in a North Country plant too. It looks like their only competition will be similar merchant energy projects. – CHRIS DORNIN/GOLDEN DOME NEWS

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