This story was co-published with New Hampshire Business Review
By Chris Jensen
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 Eversource buys from the Burgess BioPower plant in Berlin. That information would provide a look at the plant’s long-term viability.
That plant’s viability is important to the North Country, because its burns wood chips, supporting the logging industry. It has spent at least $40 million in New Hampshire since it opened in 2014, according to Sarah Boone, a vice president at Cate Street Capital. The plant is owned by Cate Street Capital Holdings Group, according to court records.
And here’s why the $100 million figure is important.
In 2011 the previous PUC approved a contract that allows Eversource to buy electricity at a rate that can be considerably more 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.”
That $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, who was an Executive Councilor.
At the time, Sununu told New Hampshire 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.
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 consumer advocate 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 argues 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 told InDepthNH.org. “We have an exemption from the right-to-know open meetings requirements for our deliberations,” she said. She said the decision would be explained in the order but she wasn’t sure when the three commissioners would be discussing the matter.
InDepthNH.org is NH’s nonprofit news website published online by the New Hampshire Center for Public Interest Journalism. Veteran journalist Chris Jensen covers the North Country and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org