Out with the Old
In the late 1980s, the state of New Hampshire made sure it was economically wise and feasible to construct new biomass power plants that would help reach renewable energy goals, even though its renewable portfolio standard (RPS) was not implemented yet. Part of the state’s push for the new, clean power included forcing its largest power distributor, Public Service New Hampshire, to enter into 20-year power purchase agreements with six independent biomass power plants. So with long-term revenue assurance in hand, those plants were constructed and each began producing between 15 and 20 megawatts (MW) for distribution to the utility’s ratepayers.
Fast-forward to today. Four of those power agreements have expired and PSNH has no interest in renewing them; the spot market for power and renewable energy certificates (RECs) is grossly unsatisfying due to depressed pricing; and New Hampshire’s RPS isn’t conducive to older renewable power.
Without improvements to policy or increases in power and REC prices, the outlook is bleak for Bridgewater Power Co., Indeck Alexandria, and Pinetree Power Tamworth and Bethlehem, both owned by GDF Suez. “Right now we’re losing money,” says Mike O’Leary, plant manager for Bridgewater Power, owned by Harbert Power Corp. and Public Service Enterprise Group. “If the situation continues based on the current forecast for power prices and REC prices, I don’t see [Bridgewater] surviving until the end of this year.”
Since the expiration of the long-term agreements with PSNH, some of the plants, including Bridgewater, were able to establish short-term agreements on the spot market with smaller utilities. But severely depressed power and REC prices don’t support continued operations or justify longer-term agreements, O’Leary says. “We’re hoping we can offer a long-term agreement that makes sense to keep us operating.”
Exacerbating the already enormous problem is the structure of the state’s 23.8 percent by 2025 RPS. Like some other New England RPSs, New Hampshire’s divides RECs into classes I, II, III and IV. Biomass power can be eligible for classes I and III. A number of issues can determine biomass REC categorization, but because of their operation start dates, none of the four plants are certified for anything above Class III, and some are not even certified for that.
REC prices are low because of an overcapacity of qualifiers, and the demand requirements of Class III RECs are based off utility load, which has gone down significantly with the economic downturn, O’Leary says. “With the REC program, you can’t foresee everything and I think that the REC was really designed to compensate the renewables for the fact that renewables cost more than conventional generation and then the energy would take care of itself,” he says. “Well, unfortunately, the energy prices dropped incredibly low and the REC price dropped to a fraction of the alternative compliance payment.”
The RPS specifies percentage requirements for each class every year up until 2025. The problem is that no increase in Class III energy is required of utilities above the current 6.5 percent. For 2011, the Class I requirement is 2 percent, increasing 1 percent each year until it reaches 16 percent in 2025. “Class III is already topped out,” says Scott Tranchemontagne, president of Montagne Communications. He works closely with the biomass industry and launched a website to bring attention to New Hampshire’s biomass issues. “What they need moving forward is more Class I energy and less Class III energy. I firmly believe that if they were able to offer Class I RECs, they would have a much stronger chance of getting a power purchase agreement.”
And he might be on the right track, as PSNH has entered into a PPA with the Berlin Project, a proposed 70 MW biomass power plant in Berlin, N.H. “It may not be a case of apples and oranges, but it is certainly a case of McIntosh versus Golden Delicious,” says Martin Murray, PSNH senior corporate news representative. “They’re all biomass plants, but the fact is the [Berlin] plant will produce Class I renewable energy certificates, which are different entirely from Class III.” But Murray also emphasizes the market price problems, saying the 20-year agreements were extremely costly to PSNH’s ratepayers and renewals are not in the best interest of the utility’s customers. “We’re just getting out from under those,” he says. “We do have an obligation to meet all our requirements; to serve customers and to procure renewable energy certificates, but we also have an obligation to do so in the most cost-effective manner. Our customers just can’t afford anymore to be paying more for energy than what it’s worth.”
Martin points out that PSNH is not the only utility that is uninterested in purchasing power and RECs from the biomass power plants and acknowledges their challenge. “These biomass power plants are in a pickle,” he says. “They are finding it very difficult in today’s deregulated marketplace to sell their product and to make a product based on the market price. Their production cost is at or above market price.”
The plants are caught in a downward portion of an economic cycle, he adds, and given the cyclical nature of the business, might find success again down the road if they can survive this difficult streak. But PSNH won’t be the saving grace in the meantime. “They’ve gotten our money in the past,” Martin says. “We don’t want to hand it over again in the future, at least not without a well-reasoned discussion about the costs and the benefits.”
Despite PSNH’s seemingly steadfast refusal to renew the agreements, O’Leary isn’t bitter and instead expresses understanding of the utility’s reasoning. “We’re not looking for a long-term agreement,” he says. “We understand that there is more risk to ratepayers. We understand that PSNH has an obligation to their ratepayers. We’re looking for a short-term bridge that gets us to the point where the market turns around.”
It seems a bridge is crucial, but it may not connect to a better market. If the push for changes such as updates to the RPS succeed, it might simply bridge the older biomass power plants to a more friendly policy environment. But a policy change will take time, making that bridge from here to there even more crucial.
Working around policy changes, it’s possible for the power plants to qualify for Class I RECs, but the process involves substantial upgrades that would expand capacity and in some cases add emission controls. Bridgewater currently sells energy to power distributor ISO-New England and RECs to the Class I market in Connecticut. The plant isn’t even certified for Class III in New Hampshire because of its particulate emissions, so the investment to qualify for Class I in New Hampshire would be outrageous. “We’ve made an offer to the utility to put in particulate emissions removal and qualify for Class III if we could get a contract for a certain period of time,” O’Leary says.
So the better option seems to be a change to the RPS itself, which could include a new alternative compliance payment amount—paid by the load-serving utility to the power generator—or a percentage requirement change for REC classes, O’Leary says. “We feel like we are victims of short-term low natural gas prices, and we think it’s in the best interest of the state to come up with a mechanism that keeps us going until those natural gas prices rebound, which will bring up the regional average for energy.”
Some of the state’s politicians realize that sustaining operation of the plants is important, Murray says, and if the solution is subsidizing by the state, PSNH only asks that the burden be shared by all the state’s energy customers, not just its own. “People want to find a win-win solution,” Murray says. “There are discussions going on but no solution has been found because it is a real challenge.”
In fact, a number of discussions seem to be underway with multiple organizations pulling state senators and even Gov. John Lynch into the mix to help find that solution. The New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association has held a series of meetings to address the problems, drawing about 200 people to a mid-February gathering designed to discuss options to support the plants, according to the association’s program director Eric Johnson. “We’re fortunate we’re a small state and access to politicians is pretty readily available,” he says. “A lot are small business owners themselves and understand the risks, investments. A lot have taken the perspective that this is a small business issue.”
The shuttering of the plants would have an enormous impact on the state of New Hampshire, not the least of which falling on the loggers and feedstock providers, thus the push from the timber industry to solve the problem. “Those power plants consume a tremendous amount of low-grade wood and that’s of concern to me as a logging contractor,” Johnson explains. “If I can’t get all the low-grade wood on a typical harvest, then I’m forced to take only the nicer wood in order to make that a profitable operation.”
An ideal split for a timberland owner is one-third low-grade wood, one-third mid-grade and one-third high grade, he says. But more often than not the composition is 50 to 60 percent low-grade wood. It can be used for pulpwood or cordwood, but most is only used in whole tree chips. “If we’re going to sustain and continue to grow good wood, we need to have a market for the low-grade wood that comes out of a typical forest in New England,” Johnson says. Each of the state’s six independent biomass power plants use around 200,000 tons of wood annually, which is a large portion of the wood supply, he says, adding the two plants still under long-term power agreements are teetering on contract expiration, as well. The delivered price of that wood is about $25 per ton. “Logging contractors are going to be directly impacted if these plants shut down,” Johnson says. “It will severely curtail their operations. They have a lot at stake.”
The trickledown effect is much greater than with natural gas operations because the feedstock is locally sourced and consumed, he adds. Together, the four plants employ between 400 and 500 people, including the feedstock suppliers in the woods. Studies have shown that the impact of the four biomass facilities to the state is around $50 million including fuel and wages, but Johnson says that’s conservative and is closer to $70 million. “That’s a significant chunk of change that will disappear from the economy,” he says.
Whatever the solution to the looming closures, it needs to take effect soon to prevent significant adverse impacts to the state, not to mention the loss of hundreds of jobs for working families. The issue has been front and center for Johnson in his work for the association for the past three or four months he says. “It has the potential to be a huge issue for us if these plants shut down. It will have a big impact on the working forest and our members.”
O’Leary exudes hope for a timely resolution and continuance of biomass operations in New Hampshire. “We’re optimistic that the load-serving entities in the state will recognize the importance of in-state generation and the economic impact of this industry.”
Author: Lisa Gibson
Associate Editor Biomass Power & Thermal