Stakes high in New Hampshire timber industry debate
New Hampshire’s wood-fired power plants helped support the timber industry for nearly four decades. But their days could be numbered now — unless the state Legislature’s latest lifeline succeeds.
The state Senate is set to vote this Thursday on up to $75 million in ratepayer subsidies for the state's biomass plants over three years. Passage is expected. After that, this biomass bill goes to the House, where it also apparently enjoys wide support.
Then there’s Governor Chris Sununu, who has concerns about the costs. He vetoed the last biomass bill that came his way in 2018, citing the impact on ratepayers — only to watch that veto get overridden. Efforts to put that legislation into action were promptly stymied by a legal challenge. The timber industry hopes this new version provides an airtight workaround.
The timber industry says hundreds of jobs are at stake — drivers, loggers, and the like — beyond just the 120 people at the power plants at risk of closing because they are no longer economically feasible to run.
The industry, unsurprisingly, finds itself at odds with other business interests who don’t want to see subsidies that drive up their electricity costs.
Caught in the middle: Eversource. Or perhaps more accurately, Eversource’s New Hampshire customers. New England’s largest utility had opposed an earlier bill, but a spokesman says Eversource didn’t take a stand this time around. The company, he says, will work to implement the legislation if lawmakers find a legally acceptable solution that ensures the utility can recover its costs.
Some industry supporters aren’t quite buying Eversource’s neutrality. They point to the fact that the New England Ratepayers Association used one of Eversource’s law firms, Steptoe & Johnson, to file a complaint with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. That complaint gummed up the implementation of last year’s biomass law. (Eversource and the association say there’s no connection, other than that they both hired a firm known for handling electric power issues.)
Complicating matters: Consultant Michael Sununu has worked with the ratepayers group on the issue. Yes, Michael is the governor’s brother. And no, the two Sununus have not talked to each other about the topic, according to the governor’s office and Marc Brown, president of the ratepayers group.
Brown says manufacturers are suffering under high electricity prices already. They don’t need to add biomass industry subsidies to their burdens.
Time may be running out. Jasen Stock, head of the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association, says six of the state’s eight biomass plants have gone idle, or will soon shutter after they burn up their remaining stockpiles. Together, they provide about 100 megawatts of generating capacity, a small portion of the state's peak demand. Senator Jeb Bradley, the lead proponent of the new bill, has one in his district. (Stock says the state’s two other biomass plants, in Berlin and Portsmouth, are protected for now through existing Eversource agreements.)
These facilities provide an important source of revenue for the timber industry, particularly after the near-complete demise of the paper mills in the region. Stock says loggers need a place to send low-quality wood material that can’t be used in lumber. He says he is already hearing about job losses in the logging industry, although the biomass plants have kept most of their employees on board for now as they wait for a resolution in Concord.
The debate coincides with a similar one that is heating up in Massachusetts: The Baker administration just drafted new rules that are seen as making it easier for biomass plants to benefit from subsidies for renewable power plants. (Stock says his group isn’t involved with that push.)
It’s not unusual for state lawmakers and regulators to help power generators with ratepayer subsidies — as long as they bring environmental benefits, too. Consider the contracts in Connecticut to keep the Millstone nuclear plant open, or the Vineyard Wind contracts in Massachusetts to launch an offshore wind industry. Economic benefits helped with the politics around getting those deals done, but controlling carbon emissions proved to be the primary driving force. In New Hampshire, at least, the potential economic impact might be all the timber industry needs.