BERLIN – Home to hydro stations, wind turbines, a biomass plant, and with the potential to host a solar farm, the City that Trees Built is gradually rebranding itself as the City of Renewable Energy.
Berlin now cumulatively generates almost 120 megawatts of renewable power from the above sources. Mayor Paul Grenier thinks the city could add another 30 to 40 megawatts of capacity, but the challenge is how to get that power onto the local transmission system, the Coos Loop, and from there into the regional energy market.
Owned by Eversource, the 73-mile Coos Loop connects substations in Whitefield, Groveton and Berlin. From Whitefield, the line connects into the New England grid.
Proposals to upgrade the Coos Loop have been studied for years, including in 2007 when the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission issued a report that looked at three options, ranging in price from $165 million to $210 million.
More recently, Eversource, as part of its Northern Pass Transmission Project proposal, said it would spend between $50 million and $55 million to increase the physical size of the line, which would allow nearly all of the renewable energy produced in Berlin and Coos County to enter the grid at one time.
The various generators, including the 99-megawatt Granite Reliable Wind Farm in Millsfield and Dixville and the 75-megawatt Burgess BioPower plant in Berlin, cumulatively produce more than 250 megawatts. But because of constraints in the Coos Loop, only about 150 megawatts gets into the grid, according to Eversource spokesman Martin Murray.
The future of the Coos Loop upgrade is up in the air following the Feb. 1 vote by the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee to reject the Northern Pass application. Eversource plans to file a motion for reconsideration, Murray said.
The constraints within the Coos Loop have existed for some time, said Murray, and a fix has not been forthcoming because the underlying issue is not one of reliability, but of a larger economic interest in facilitating the production and distribution of renewable energy in the North Country.
The scope and cost of the upgrade has prevented individual energy producers from taking it on by themselves, which is why some communities, like Berlin, which are not along its 192-mile route from Pittsburg to Deerfield, have strongly backed Northern Pass.
Murray thinks there’s plenty of renewable energy potential in the North Country, noting that there’s also a desire for it because of the state’s “25 x ’25” Renewable Energy Initiative, whose goal is to have New Hampshire obtain a quarter of its energy from clean, renewable sources by the year 2025.
The question, however, is how to export that energy out when the producers want to. Addressing that question is key to Berlin’s future as a renewable energy producer, said Grenier, during a recent interview at Burgess BioPower.
Grenier, who is also a Coos County commissioner, has championed Northern Pass. Many other people in the region have opposed it, mostly on the grounds that the construction of numerous tall towers would harm viewscapes, property values and tourism in the region.
For Berlin, Northern Pass and the Coos Loop upgrade represent an opportunity to become an even bigger statewide player in renewable energy.
After the 99-megawatt Granite Reliable Power wind farm in Dixville and Millsfield, the largest individual generator of renewable energy in Coos County is Burgess BioPower.
Although Burgess BioPower has no immediate plans to expand, plant manager David Walker said, it has the ability to do so in the future onto an adjacent piece of land.
Grenier said Berlin has backed Burgess BioPower because “we wanted to help it become the economic backbone we knew it could be.”
The plant employs 27 people onsite, said Walker, and some 200 others statewide, most associated with the production and transportation of wood chips to the plant.
In December, an economic-impact report said that Burgess BioPower “significantly benefits both the Coos County and New Hampshire economies.”
While few people doubted the benefits of Burgess BioPower to Berlin, with which it has a 20-year payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement, questions have been raised about Eversource’s power-purchase agreement with Burgess.
Murray said the agreement was not relevant to the discussion of the Coos Loop.
Meanwhile, Scott Tranchemontagne, who is a spokesman for Burgess, acknowledged that Eversource ratepayers do sometimes pay the higher “over market” price.
When they do, he said, “it is because natural gas prices dropped to 20-year lows in 2015 and 2016. As such, the cost for Burgess power during this time was above the market price. As the demand and price of natural gas increase, Burgess electricity costs will very likely not exceed the market price.”
The power purchase agreement, he added, had “strong backing from many New Hampshire officials calling for support of forestry jobs in the North Country. The construction and continued operation of Burgess BioPower has helped stimulate economic growth in a region that was looking to recover from mass layoffs at the paper and pulp mills.”
Grenier said Berlin “could not have a better corporate citizen” than Burgess and that he is looking for more such corporate citizens to operate there “so we can proclaim that we’re the renewable capital of New Hampshire, if we aren’t that already.”
Berlin’s dormant municipal landfill could be home to a solar farm, he said, and Grenier is meeting monthly with representatives of Cate Street Capital, which owns Burgess, to discuss how to attract businesses that could utilize the waste heat from the plant.
“Berlin is open for renewable power,” Grenier said.
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