If Burgess Closes, the Impact Will Extend Beyond Berlin

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Garry Rayno is InDepthNH.org's State House Bureau Chief. He is pictured in the press room at the State House in Concord.

By GARRY RAYNO, Distant Dome

The Legislature returned to Concord last week — without mileage payments — to take up Gov. Chris Sununu’s nine vetoes.

For many, the most important was House Bill 142 which would have granted the Burgess BioPower plant in Berlin two more years to find a solution to an on-going problem almost since the day it opened.

The plant cannot produce electricity cheaply enough to compete in New England’s wholesale market. 

While those who sided with the governor believing “enough is enough” and took a victory lap, the folks in the North Country had to look at the failure to override the veto as more evidence Concord politicians don’t care about them.

But you need to take a step back and see how the state arrived at this place and know there is more than enough blame to go around.

The Berlin plant served a number of purposes for many state politicians, it helped Berlin rebound from the paper mills implosion decades ago, it propped up the forest products industry left in the lurch, and produced electricity with something other than fossil fuels.

The plant owners were also able to tap federal tax credits and dollars to build a “renewable energy facility” and the state Public Utilities Commission was willing to go along with a purchase power agreement if it capped over market prices for electricity at $100 million and then the owners had to repay Eversource ratepayers for their “help.”

For those who remember when the plant was in the development phase, much money was spent on lobbyists and public relations campaigns to pressure lawmakers and regulators to make “the right decisions.”
The Berlin plant was the last and the biggest of the wood-fired plants that dotted the state’s landscape north of Concord. They were sold as an alternative power producing source when the price of oil became uneconomical.

The power producing contracts were signed with Public Service before it went into bankruptcy due to the cost of building Seabrook Station.

During the fight over deregulation after the bankruptcy, the purchase power agreements signed were one of the bigger sticking points. Public Service wanted to recover nearly all of its “stranded costs.”

Consequently, the over-market electric costs and the coddling of the forest products industry were already well established by the time the Burgess proposal came along.

And state economic development officials had long sought some large employer to help stop Berlin’s economic bleeding after the paper mills left town.

And the Legislature had its part to play as well, as the owners turned to lawmakers to help them when abiding by the PUC’s safety valve or $100 million cap would create an unhealthy balance sheet.

So lawmakers for the last few years have delayed the date the company has to begin making Eversource ratepayers whole compared to their counterparts buying power from other utilities.

Some think the free market has spoken and the inevitable will occur, the plant will shut down leaving about 30 employees out of work, and many foresters will scramble to find new markets for their timber.

However, it does not stop there . The timber taxes towns receive will be less, county property taxes will increase, and Berlin — with some of the highest property tax rates in the state — will see those rates go even higher making educating their children that much more difficult.

Either way you view it, the closing of the power plant is not an isolated incident and its impact will spread well beyond Berlin.

The state has had opportunities to help Berlin and the North Country over the years, but a federal prison and a state prison do not provide the amount of jobs that left the North Country with the paper mills.

Berlin has continued to lose population as has Coos County and nothing has stemmed the exodus.

The state has made several attempts to string high-speed broadband, but it was dependent on internet companies providing some of the capital, something they were unwilling to do until the pandemic revealed huge gaps in the system. Hundreds of millions in federal relief and recovery money was able to provide enough incentives for the providers to begin stringing the high-speed internet most of the state has had for some time, in the North Country and other rural parts of the states.

The high speed service may allow people to live in the North Country and telecommute or on-line companies to locate there, but it is also a little too little, and too late.

Like many things, it is not just private industry moving forward, situations often need government intervention like with new drug development or innovations to address climate change.

Why? Well, one reason is corporate citizenship is not what it once was as more and more money goes into investors’ pockets and not into research and development.

Corporate taxes have been more than cut in half since former President Ronald Reagan began the rush to lower rates and transfer much of the burden to the middle class.

The Bush and Trump tax cuts exacerbated the problem and continued to move more and more wealth to the upper echelons of earners.

And when more and more wealth is generated by fewer and fewer people, an oligarchy is created that takes care of itself, made easier by the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision giving corporations first amendment rights.

What has this to do with the Burgess plant?

Society has to decide what it wants, and what it wants to accomplish. 

Do you want to prop up the forest products industry in the North Country and help Berlin weather some tough economic times or do you just let the free market decide?

When the free market was free to do whatever the owners and investors wanted, hotdogs had pieces of pigs’ feet in them and DDT killed eagles and other wildlife, and entered the food chain.

The North Country’s situation is vastly different than the golden triangle constrained by Nashua, Concord and Portsmouth, and propping up the forest products industry might not be a bad idea nor would subsidies to generate power from burning wood.

But the faces and the political mood of the politicians making those decisions change from year to year.

What was acceptable two years ago, is not acceptable today.

And jumping for joy that the free-market will do its work by the House’s failure to override Sununu’s veto, does not do justice to what brought us here in the first place.

The state’s largest electric utility’s bankruptcy, an oil embargo, diminishing corporate citizenship and just plain greed joined together to create the boondoggle we have today.

It is not as simple as free markets vs government interventions, it is far more complex and indicative of the greater economic battle raging today.

Burgess is a small part of it, but still impacts the state.

Garry Rayno may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com.

Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.

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