More Biomass Plants Say Sununu's Veto Prompting Shutdowns

Jul 3, 2018

A timberer delimbs a white pine near New London in this 2017 photo.
Credit New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association

Governor Chris Sununu is standing by his veto of a bill to boost the biomass industry – even as more of the wood-burning plants say they may shut down as a result.

A wood buyer for Bridgewater Biomass confirmed Tuesday that the plant took the veto as a signal about the industry's future, and stopped buying new wood in late June.

The Pinetree Power plants in Tamworth and Bethlehem did the same, according to spokeswoman Carol Churchill of their parent company, ENGIE North America.

Sununu's office maintains in a statement that the vetoed bill would have cost electric ratepayers too much.

“Excessive electricity rates prevent new jobs from coming to New Hampshire and stifle the businesses that are already here,” the statement says.

Groups like the Business and Industry Association applauded the veto after it happened.

And Greg Moore, the New Hampshire director of the conservative lobbying group Americans for Prosperity, said in a statement Tuesday that ratepayers can’t afford to prop up biomass jobs.

“We thank Governor Sununu for vetoing this poorly designed subsidy scheme and for protecting ratepayers and we will work to ensure his veto is sustained,” Moore says.

And Marc Brown with the New England Ratepayers Association writes in an email, "if legislators felt that it is in the state’s best interest to support jobs in the timber industry then they should provide that support through the general fund and not opaquely increase costs to ratepayers," as he says vetoed bill would have. 

Sununu’s office notes that biomass wood fuel accounts for just 3.5 percent of timber revenues in the state, though it makes up 40 percent of the volume of wood harvested.

But Churchill, the ENGIE spokeswoman, says that doesn’t mean biomass isn’t important to the state’s power and timber sectors.

“The plants use low-grade wood, which is key to managing productive and healthy forests,” she says. “Without viable markets for low-grade wood, there is no incentive for timberland owners to practice sustainable forest management.”

ENGIE North America provided a copy of this letter, sent in June to wood suppliers for the Pinetree Power plants in Bethlehem and Tamworth.
Credit ENGIE North America

Churchill also disputes whether the bill Sununu vetoed would have raised electric costs as much as his office claims.

“Electric bills are increasing due to higher transmission and distribution costs, and also stranded utility costs, not generation costs,” Churchill says. “In addition, there are significant benefits of home-grown power on local generating efficiency and reliability.”

‘Your days are numbered’

Until June, Plymouth-based logger Jay Matthews sold wood to the Bridgewater and Pinetree plants, as well as the Alexandria biomass plant that idled last year.

He says the news of the governor’s veto left him “devastated” and “bewildered.”

"You see the handwriting on the wall – your days are numbered,” he says.

Matthews says he’s now moving around three loads of wood a day, valued at $2,400, compared to 15 loads for $14,000 before the veto. But he says he’s got debts to pay – with millions invested in new, safer harvesting equipment to supply the biomass industry.

He says he may have to lay off some of his five employees this summer if the plants don’t begin buying wood again.

Long-term, Matthews says the industry’s decline could ripple throughout the North Country’s economy - to fuel suppliers, lunch spots and myriad other businesses.

"I’m concerned with my electrical bill like anybody, but … I think we'd probably be better off paying a little more money in our rate and then still have the logging community working, [rather than] to put 'em all out of business,” Matthews says.

He says he sees Sununu’s veto as a handout to big power companies like Eversource.

While Matthews says he’s a “staunch Republican” who voted for the governor in 2016, he says he’d sooner vote for a Democrat this year.

A push to overturn

Bridgewater and the Pinetree plants will operate only occasionally this summer, according to facility representatives. They'll decide whether to start back up after the legislature considers overriding the governor's veto in September.

Local loggers will meet with legislators about the issue at 6 p.m. next Thursday, July 12, at the Sharp Enterprises logging office in Bridgewater.

Meanwhile, New Hampshire’s other wood-burning power plants appear to be operating normally.

Jay Matthews says he believes EWP Renewable Corp.’s Springfield and Whitefield plants are still buying wood. EWP and the plants’ managers did not respond to a request for comment.

Schiller Station in Portsmouth, formerly owned by Eversource and now managed by Connecticut-based Granite Shore Power, says it’s also still buying wood as one of its fuels.

And the state’s largest biomass plant, Burgess BioPower in Berlin, says it’s doing fine.

“Burgess BioPower is fully operational, and continues to receive more than 100 truckloads of biomass fuel each day, with plans to continue doing so well into the future,” a plant spokeswoman says in a statement.

Sununu signed a bill last week adding three years to Burgess’ state subsidy, which lets them sell power to Eversource at above-market prices.