The fight is on after Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed a bill that biomass supporters say has once more put New Hampshire’s six independent wood-fired biomass plants at risk of closing and put in jeopardy the timber industry in the state and the North Country.
On Friday, Sununu, whose brother, Michael Sununu, has consulted with the main group opposing bills to support biomass, the New England Ratepayers Association (NERA), which in a petition to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on a 2018 biomass bill is employing the same law firm used by Eversource Energy, vetoed House Bill 183.
HB 183 seeks to require Eversource – which last year opted to not enter into a three-year power purchase agreement with the plants even though a 2018 state law on biomass requires it – to purchase renewable energy credits from the plants.
“Biomass is a $250 million [annual] activity that provides 900 jobs,” state Rep. Troy Merner, R-Lancaster, among those lawmakers leading the fight to override the veto, said on Monday.
“My constituents strongly support the biomass and timber industry,” he said. “It’s critical to the forest and land management throughout the state of New Hampshire.”
Sununu has said the requirement of Eversource to purchase the credits is a subsidy that comes at a cost of $20 million that he argues would get passed on to rate payers.
Supporters of biomass, however, argue the industry provides hundreds of direct and indirect jobs, supports local economies, and keeps forests healthy by removing low-grade wood, and said the actual cost to the average rate payer to keep the plants open comes out to the price of a cup of coffee, about $1.40, on a monthly electric bill.
“It’s an investment,” said Merner. “What we get out of it is tenfold.”
A bipartisan group of New Hampshire lawmakers will be supporting an override of the governor’s veto, said Merner.
So far, the legislators signing on to support the override effort include state Sens. Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, who crafted the amendment to SB 183 to add the purchase of the energy credits; David Starr, R-Franconia; Bob Guida, R-Warren; Dan Feltes, D-Concord; Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry; David Watters, D-Dover; and Ruth Ward, R-Stoddard.
Others include state Rep. Erin Hennessey, R-Littleton, and state Rep. Bob Backus, D-Manchester, with more legislators, including local House members, to sign on, said Merner.
“We will organize once the dust settles this week and we have some time to work,” he said.
The tentative date of veto override is Sept. 19.
In September 2018, the N.H. Legislature overrode Sununu’s veto of Senate Bill 365, which required the state’s larger utilities, primarily Eversource, to enter into three-year power purchase agreements with the state’s biomass plants.
The veto was overridden by the minimum two-thirds majority in the N.H. Legislature, but a few months later Eversource announced it would not comply with the law unless the N.H. Public Utilities Commission directed it otherwise.
In November, NERA, using the Eversource law firm, Steptoe and Johnson, filed a petition with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission asking FERC to nullify SB 365 and declare that it alone has the authority to set wholesale rates for electricity.
The amended HB 183, instead of requiring the utilities to enter into power purchase contracts, requires they instead purchase base-load renewable energy credits at the rate of one credit per megawatt hour generated by each facility that the the utilities could then sell on the open market.
The money the biomass plants would receive would help them maintain their operating revenue until they can become more self-sufficient, a time supporters estimate would be several years.
Together, the state’s biomass plants that include Pinetree Power in Bethlehem and DG Whitefield - both of which went online three decades ago and each employing about 20 area residents - provide jobs to more than 100 people and produce about 100 megawatts of renewable energy.
On Tuesday, Eversource spokesman William Hinkle said Eversource has tried to work in good faith with the biomass plants and is not entering into the power purchase agreements under SB 365 to protect its customers in the event the law is ruled unconstitutional.