PUC Sides With Public’s Right-to-know On Eversource $100 Million Question

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The controversial contract for the Burgess BioPower plant was supported by politicians and businesses because the plant would use so many wood chips that it would boost the economy of the North Country. Chris Jensen photo

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By Chris Jensen,

In an order issued Tuesday, the state’s Public Utilities Commission rejected Eversource’s request to keep secret how much extra consumers are paying for electricity from a biomass plant in Berlin.

“We find the public’s interest in reviewing the information outweighs the interests in keeping the information confidential,” commissioners Martin Honigberg, Kathryn Bailey and Michael Giaimo agreed in an order made public earlier this week.

“Eversource has 30 days to appeal the decision,” said F. Anne Ross,  the PUC’s general counsel. If there is no appeal after 30 days the order becomes final and the confidential information would be made public. Eversource spokesperson Martin Murray said: “Eversource is not at this time planning to seek rehearing.”

That information would provide an insight into the long-term viability of the plant, which burns wood chips and is an important source of work for the forest industry.

Since 2014 at least $40 million in biomass has been purchased from loggers, mostly in New Hampshire and Maine, the plant’s owner, Cate Street Capital Holdings Group, said earlier this year.

Eversource buys electricity from the biomass plant under a controversial agreement approved by three different PUC commissioners in 2011. That agreement allows Eversource to pay considerably more than the market price.

Eversource is also allowed to pass that additional cost onto consumers who buy their electricity directly from Eversource. The additional cost does not affect consumers who get their bills from Eversource, but have the electricity provided by other companies.

Under the agreement once Eversource has paid $100 million more than the market price there’s a big change in the financial picture: anything over that $100 million mark is deducted from future payments from Eversource.

That has the potential to seriously erode the plant’s current profitability.
What Eversource wants to keep secret is its estimate of when that crucial $100 million point will be reached.

The issue came up during a PUC public meeting in June when Eversource official Frederick B. White was asked when the $100 million limit would be reached. White answered the question, but Eversource then asked that information be considered confidential. They argued making that information public could cause “competitive harm.”

That confidentiality request was opposed by Consumer Advocate D. Maurice Kreis, the state watchdog for utility consumers. Kreis said that extra $100 million is being passed along to those who purchase electricity directly from Eversource and so the information should be public.

Kreis also said the 2011 agreement was so contentious that the public had a right to know how it is working out.

In 2011 then-consumer advocate Meredith Hatfield – and some PUC staffers – strongly opposed the contract saying it was a bad deal that would force consumers to pay more than necessary and in effect subsidize the logging industry.

But politicians and others – including loggers – favored the deal, saying it would provide a boost to the economy of the North Country while providing green energy required under a state mandate.

The contract was approved by then-commissioners Thomas Getz, Clifton Below and Amy Ignatius. Getz went to work for a law firm that does work for Eversource; Below works in property management and Ignatius is a Superior Court judge.

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 christopherjensennh@gmail.com

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