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My Turn: Eversource must stop bullying N.H. forest community

  • Tom Thomson stands in front of low-grade wood in Orford that will be chipped for biomass energy plants to generate electricity. Courtesy

For the Monitor
Published: 3/7/2019 12:15:04 AM

My father always said, “You stand for something, or you stand for nothing.”

Last year, the New Hampshire General Court overwhelmingly stood for the state’s forest community and renewable power by passing Senate Bill 365, a bill to support the state’s six independent biomass power plants. And then the General Court stood up again and reaffirmed that support by overriding the governor’s veto of SB 365 with a two-thirds bipartisan majority in both the House and the Senate.

Our Legislature made clear in these two big votes that New Hampshire’s forests, its forest industry and local renewable energy are key to our state’s future, to say nothing about the thousands upon thousands of private forest landowners who own just under 3.5 million acres, or 72.2 percent of New Hampshire’s forests and need a market for our low-grade wood. That market is created by the biomass energy plants.

SB 365 became law in September, but its implementation continues to be delayed by opponents’ litigation and delay tactics.

When they passed SB 365 into law, our legislators recognized how important those six biomass energy plants are to our state and its forest economy. SB 365’s benefits include more than 900 jobs, $254 million per year in economic activity and promotion of good forest management to protect the environment.

But Eversource, New Hampshire’s largest utility, refuses to follow the law by thumbing its nose at the Legislature, whose directive to Eversource was to work with the biomass power plants and with the N.H. Public Utilities Commission to finalize the power contracts called for in SB 365. Under the law, Eversource was to purchase the energy output of the biomass plants starting on Feb. 1, 2019. But instead of purchasing the biomass energy output, Eversource and an out-of-state group called the New England Ratepayers Association are challenging the law and delaying the purchase.

NERA claims it advocates for ratepayers. However, when SB 365 was debated, it was found that the loss of the biomass plants and the baseload generation of power they provide would have a long-term cost due to increases in future New England energy grid capacity charges. NERA never acknowledged the costs, nor the cost to the state of New Hampshire of losing the jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity. Not only would New Hampshire ratepayers pay more and New Hampshire people lose their livelihoods, New Hampshire would lose a critical component of managing our state’s forestlands. This is clearly an issue NERA, a Massachusetts-based organization, doesn’t understand.

The bullying tactics from Eversource and NERA are causing harm – exactly what the Legislature wanted to avoid. Biomass plants are struggling, and this is being felt throughout the forest economy. No one knows what is going to happen and small-business owners and landowners are trying to make plans for the future.

This law was not just about energy and electrons, it was about supporting the state’s forest products industry, forest landowners and the recreation/tourism industry. Too much is at stake for the many families in logging, forestry, sawmills and equipment-supplying firms, and those private forest landowners who are willing to share our lands with both the general public and our state, giving free access to recreational logging trails for hunting, hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling, to name just a few activities. Stop the delay – and follow the law now.

Eversource and the N.H. Public Utilities Commission need to act now and implement the law, whose benefits include: diversifying energy (fuel) – the regional grid operator warns us that New England is already too reliant on natural gas, and if we lose biomass power plants this problem gets worse; protection from shifting regional transmission/distribution/capacity costs; keeping N.H. energy dollars in our communities (the six biomass power plants covered by SB 365 generate $254 million in annual economic activity in New Hampshire’s communities); and promoting good forest management – healthy forests mean healthier water and air and better habitat for wildlife.

Best of all, these power plants provide locally sourced power. To lose these power plants is not only to lose those electrons, it is to lose a major economic and environmental driver of what makes New Hampshire special.

We are a place where you can still work the land, enjoy the fruits of your labor and contribute to your local community – that’s the true “New Hampshire Way” we often hear about and it’s exactly what the General Court encouraged when it passed SB 365 and then overrode the governor’s ill-considered veto of this important legislation.

As I said at the beginning, “You stand for something or you stand for nothing.” I choose to stand with the hard-working men and women of the forest products industry and our forest landowners. The Legislature did, too, when it passed SB 365. I call on the opponents of SB 365 to comply with state law. It’s long past time for Eversource and NERA to follow the letter of the law.

(Tom Thomson of Orford is a tree farmer.)

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