Bipartisan Biomass Energy Amendment Seeks To Avoid Long Legal Fight

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Michael O'Leary photo

Bridgewater Power Company

Proposal Has Unanimous Support of Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

CONCORD— A bipartisan coalition of state senators will offer a proposal hoping to avoid a protracted legal fight that followed passage of a biomass reform law late last year, according to a Senate news release issued on Friday.

They say it is an effort to avoid a crippling shutdown of New Hampshire’s biomass energy plants, while preserving ongoing efforts to manage the state’s forest land.

Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, will formally submit an amendment to HB 183 to preserve the state policy that was enacted last year in SB 365.

The legislature passed SB 365 into law by overriding a gubernatorial veto. The law requires Eversource to buy power for three years from six biomass plants at discounted rates.

It hasn’t been implemented because of litigation at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and by challenges at the Public Utilities Commission. A group of biomass plants recently asked the state Supreme Court to intervene.

“These delays prevent the plants from operating under the law’s benefits and, instead, force the plants into economic shutdown. The litigation efforts are causing major job losses and issues in our forest economy,” Bradley said.

The lawsuits threaten approximately 1,000 jobs and an estimated $254 million dollars of annual economic benefit to the state, according to the Senate news release.

Senators believe this amendment allows biomass plants to get back on-line, providing 100 megawatts of energy to the state’s grid, assisting the forestry industry with a low-grade market for wood chips, and putting people back to work, the release states.

Who will pay

D. Maurice Kreis, the state’s Consumer Advocate representing residential utility customers, said:

“I would not presume to second-guess the principled policy judgment of a distinguished group of bipartisan legislators that New Hampshire should give another boost to our state’s struggling forest products industry.

“But as the statutory representative of the state’s residential utility customers, it falls to me to state the obvious: Every penny of this subsidy will come out of the pockets of ratepayers. In that sense, this year’s amendment is no different than the bill Governor Sununu vetoed last year,” Kreis said.

Eversource spokesman William Hinkle said Eversource has been working  in good faith to comply with SB 365’s requirements while also making sure that customers are protected if the law is invalidated by federal authorities.

“With the existing tension between state and federal law, the approximately $75 million in above-market costs for customers at stake and our legal requirement to ensure that rates are ‘just and reasonable and not more than is allowed by law,’ it is of paramount importance that we make every effort possible to protect our customers until that tension no longer exists.

“If the legislature finds a solution that addresses the pending constitutionality questions and ensures that above-market costs can be recovered, we will continue working to implement the goals of the New Hampshire legislature – just as we’ve done since the original bill went into effect,” Hinkle said.

Bradley said the law provides renewable energy, jobs and forest management through the biomass industry in the state.

 Senators Martha Fuller Clark (Chairwoman), Dan Feltes, Bob Giuda, and David Watters are co-sponsoring the proposal, which will support the enacted state policy to protect the biomass industry rather continue to wait for resolution in a legal fight waged by the law’s opponents, the news release states. 

 “The biomass industry is at a crisis point, and these legal challenges are undermining jobs in the forest products industry and reliability in New Hampshire’s generation mix,” Bradley said.

Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, D-Concord, said, “Consistent with recent case law, the amendment will create a ‘baseload renewable energy credit’ to be sold to existing utilities, thus creating a mechanism that avoids the issues that gave rise to the ill-advised litigation.

“This is about standing up for the hard-working men and women of New Hampshire. We are focused on preserving jobs, protecting an annual economic benefit of $254 million dollars, and maintaining sustainable forest management,” Feltes said.

Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren, said the amendment is critical to his constituents.

“This delay is unacceptable – we must act to protect the small businesses, landowners and the families that rely on the timber industry to survive,” Giuda said.

“Promoting ‘home-grown’ renewable energy policy is not a partisan issue. It serves the state by creating good jobs and benefitting our economy,” Giuda said.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on the amendment on Tuesday, May 7.  A full Senate vote is anticipated by the middle of May. Senators hope for a quick resolution to this ongoing dispute before permanent economic damage is done to the forestry industry, the release states. 

Jasen Stock, executive director of the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association, said settling this matter is critical to the biomass plants and the forest products industry.

“Anything we can do to get the spirit of SB 365 enacted, we’re going to support,” Stock said.

The people and the legislature have spoken loud and clear, Stock said.

 “It’s frustrating not seeing it happen. For us, these power plants are a huge part of forest products industry,” Stock said.

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