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N.H. Legislature Overrides Sununu on Biomass Bill

  • A trailer carrying between 25 and 30 tons of wood chips from a logging job, enough for about one hour of electric generation, is emptied at the Springfield Power biomass plant in Springfield, N.H., Wednesday, August 1, 2018. The facility is one of the 6 independent biomass plants that have been impacted by Sununu's veto of S. 365 that would have required utilities to purchase a portion of their electricity from the biomass plants. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu makes a speech at a foreign relations luncheon, Monday, March 20, 2017 in Montreal. Sununu was in Quebec to discuss the economic relationship between the two and meet with business, political and community leaders.(Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press via AP)



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, September 13, 2018

Concord — After heavy lobbying from both sides, New Hampshire lawmakers on Thursday overrode Gov. Chris Sununu’s veto of a biomass bill that supporters argue will save thousands of jobs and help prop up the forestry and wood-chip industry.

The House rallied just enough votes to meet the two-thirds threshold needed to override the veto on a 226-113 vote. The override had an easier time in the Senate, where it passed, 21-3.

“I’m feeling relieved for the men and women in the forest industry, and I was proud to stand with the men and women in forestry and fight this good fight,” said Tom Thomson, an Orford tree farmer and son of the late Gov. Mel Thomson.

Thomson helped organize foresters and supporters of the bill, which would require utilities to purchase a portion of their electricity from the state’s wood-burning power plants.

Dozens of loggers and landowners came to the Statehouse holding signs in support of both the biomass bill and a measure that sought to expand large-scale solar projects in the Granite State.

He said it’s their hard work that likely carried the day.

“They rolled up their sleeves, they called their legislators and they told them what it was going to do for business,” he said.

Supporters of the bill, including the state’s six “independent” chip-burning plants, warned that Sununu’s veto would make it difficult to continue operations without the assured income. In the wake of the veto, four out of six biomass companies either closed or partially closed.

Sununu argued the bill would amount to a subsidy that could cost bill payers $25 million annually over the legislation’s three-year lifespan.

That number has been disputed by industry experts. However, Sununu reiterated on Thursday that the veto was an attempt to keep electric bills from rising.

“I think the only message is this was never about biomass, this was never about the timber owners. It was always about the ratepayers — the 1.3 million ratepayers in the state that get affected by these bills,” he said. “There has to be a better way to do this. There has to be a better way to pass legislation that doesn’t keep letting politics drive rates up and up and up on families that just can’t afford it and businesses that can’t afford it.”

The Business and Industry Association, the statewide chamber of commerce and a top lobbying group, also decried the override vote by legislators.

“Their actions will add tens of millions of dollars to the electric bills of New Hampshire ratepayers, residential and business customers alike. Lawmakers cannot have it both ways — say they will work to reduce the cost of electricity in New Hampshire — already 50-60 percent higher than the national average, year-round — then vote to subsidize a handful of businesses at the expense of everyone else. We hope the 2019-2020 Legislature will put the rhetoric surrounding the need to address high electrical energy costs into action,” BIA President Jim Roche said in a statement.

Sununu praised the Legislature for sustaining his veto of a bill that sought to expand net metering, a program that allows solar power generators to get credits for the energy they send back to the grid. The measure, he said, would have cost a “couple hundred million dollars.”

The net metering bill garnered support in the Senate, but failed, 213-128, in the House.

Upper Valley legislators celebrated the biomass votes as a job-saving act that also will lessen the state’s dependence on fossil fuels and natural gas.

“The people of New Hampshire have reason to be proud today,” state Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren, said after the Senate vote. “(The bill) prevented a death knell for an industry, which I believe is part of the solution to our energy independence.”

While Giuda, who represents the Haverhill area, expressed disappointment with the House’s failure to pass the net metering bill, he promised similar legislation will be back next year.

“It is extremely important because it enables businesses, industries, communities to negotiate their own power, and to develop their own power sources and networks,” he said.

A majority of both Grafton and Sullivan counties’ delegation to the House voted in favor of the biomass override.

Those opposed were Reps. David Binford, R-Bath; John O’Connor, R-Claremont; Steven Smith, R-Charlestown; John Cloutier, D-Claremont; Thomas Laware, R-Charlestown; and Francis Gauthier, R-Claremont.

Reps. Patricia Higgins, D-Hanover; Andrew White, D-Lebanon; and Bob Hull, R-Grafton, were absent from the vote.

Cloutier said he was concerned subsidies in the bill could help reopen Claremont’s waste incinerator, which closed in 2013 for what was described at the time as “economic reasons.”

The facility was sold to Power Investments LLC for $37,000 in 2017, and city residents have since opposed efforts to reopen the plant, which is located on Grissom Lane, south of downtown.

“I don’t want that company to be encouraged to reopen in any way,” Cloutier said after the vote. “I would like to maybe work with some others, if possible, to take that subsidy out next year, if I’m back.”

Rep. Vicki Schwaegler, R-Orford, said legislators knew the vote would be close. Many lobbied colleagues minutes up to the vote, she said.

“I’ve been worked up over this for two months. It’s very stressful,” said Schwaegler, who also represents Piermont. “It was important to our economy and to our constituencies. Our constituency was depending on this.”

Schwaegler recently lost a primary for the Orford area seat to Warren Republican Ben Hight. She believes the result was due to her support of the biomass bill. Sue Ford, a Democratic challenger for the seat from Easton, also was in Concord on Thursday supporting the bill.

But Sununu said he doesn’t believe the veto will negatively impact his race for re-election against former state Sen. Molly Kelly, of Harrisville. If anything, he said, it should show voters his commitment to lowering bills.

Kelly on Thursday issued a statement hitting back at Sununu for the veto, as well as campaign contributions he received from Eversource, the state’s largest electric utility.

“Overriding Sununu’s veto is good news for hundreds of Granite Staters in the North Country whose livelihoods depend on the forestry industry,” she said. “And while I’m disappointed the group net metering bill did not become law, I will fight as governor to expand group net metering to help advance clean energy, create jobs, and lower costs for consumers.”

In other legislative action on Thursday, an attempt to overturn the governor’s veto of a bill that would have repealed the death penalty fell short. The Senate voted, 14-10, to override the veto, two votes short of the required two-thirds needed.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

  Correction

The shuttered waste incinerator plant in Claremon t  was sold in 2017 to Power Investments LLC for $37,000. An earlier version of this story identified a different company as the buyer of the plant, but that entity’s purchase was never completed.