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Future of Burgess BioPower in question without legislative aid

Proponents of helping the wood-burning electricity plant said its continuing operation depended on legislative action

New Hampshire Governor Chris SununuPhelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

CONCORD, N.H. — The future of a wood-fueled electricity plant in Berlin, N.H., is in question after New Hampshire lawmakers sustained the governor’s veto of a bill that would have forgiven about $70 million Burgess BioPower currently owes Eversource.

A 2023 audit by the New Hampshire Department of Energy found that forcing the plant to repay those costs “would be detrimental to the continued operation of Burgess Biopower,” House Bill 142 said.

Proponents of House Bill 142 said the plant is a pillar of the North Country economy that employs hundreds and is a critical part of the state’s forest economy, as one of the only remaining markets for low-grade wood. The forest economy has been destabilized in recent years, following the exodus of the state’s paper mills in the early 2000s.

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But detractors on Thursday agreed with Governor Chris Sununu that wiping the plant’s debt and providing more subsidies is a bad idea. Michael Harrington, a Strafford Republican, called the effort a “bailout bill” and said Burgess needs to live up to the 20-year contract it entered with Eversource in 2011.

That contract allowed Burgess to charge a fixed price for energy, but created a cap to protect ratepayers so electric customers would only pay up to $100 million more than if they were getting electricity from traditional sources. When Burgess reached that amount in 2017, it asked the Legislature to suspend the cap, which lawmakers have been doing since then.

Some lawmakers argued the Legislature should continue its involvement with the plant in order to keep it open.

“Whether Burgess continues in operation with all the benefits of locally sourced renewable electric power and the jobs that it brings to the New Hampshire economy now falls to us here today to decide,” Representative Henry Noël, a Democrat from Berlin, told lawmakers Thursday.

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A 194 to 159 vote in the House failed to reach the two-thirds majority needed to overturn Sununu’s veto.

That starts a ticking clock for Burgess, as it will have to start repaying the $70 million back to Eversource at the end of November. The company would have one year to complete the payments, according to Eversource spokesperson William Hinkle. The $70 million would be “directly returned” to Eversource’s 535,000 ratepayers through future rates, he said in a statement after the vote.

“The company is evaluating the veto’s impacts and considering its next steps,” said Sarah Boone, a spokesperson for the company in a statement. She said the company was “deeply disappointed” with Thursday’s vote and said it “will create serious financial events for the forest products industry, the City of Berlin, and Burgess.”

She did not elaborate. The company said it “supports” 240 jobs statewide and generates $70 million in economic benefits per year, purchasing about 800,000 tons of low-grade wood per year. Boone told lawmakers that about 55 to 60 percent of the wood Burgess burns comes from New Hampshire.

Using wood for electricity is only around 25 percent efficient in the best-case scenario in most US plants, which has caused environmental concern. That equation is more favorable in environmental and economic terms if the heat generated from using wood can also be put to use.

Documents obtained by the Globe show the city of Berlin is working with Burgess to apply for $6 million in US Department of Energy funding to use its waste heat to create a district heating system that would warm several city buildings, including the Berlin middle, high, and elementary schools, as well as residential and commercial buildings around its main streets.

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The $7.5 million project would allow Berlin to move away from expensive heating oil and propane.

“The energy and system replacement costs cripple a declining Berlin population that has steadily dropped 25% since 1980, and experiences nearly double the poverty rate of the NH average,” according to a concept paper submitted by city officials.

A preliminary feasibility study has been completed by Wilson Engineering Services, PC, detailed project planning began this year, and the project is expected to be completed by 2029, according to the paper.

It’s unclear how the “financial events” Boone described will impact this project.


Amanda Gokee can be reached at amanda.gokee@globe.com. Follow her @amanda_gokee.