More Energy, as Always

Again, as is usual, this week I wrote about energy in Berlin. I found something interesting when looking over the power purchase agreement between PSNH and Laidlaw. If you’re following the discussion be sure to check out the Reporter on Wednesday. If you can’t wait until then get a copy of the PPA and look on page 11. I don’t think anyone will be surprised, but it is confirmation of lots of people’s speculation.

Aside from that, there was good news on the Cascade mill gas pipeline project this week. We shift from biomass to methane and natural gas. If that mill goes down it’ll be pretty dark for a number of families around the Androscoggin Valley. It seems AVRRDD might have averted that fate. Quite a task for a refuse district. I’m not sure how that fits with their mission, but it certainly is something they’ve been working hard on for several months. Again, to learn more check out Wednesday’s Berlin Reporter. I’m headed to Berlin shortly for my last day before flying to Peru tomorrow, so I better get on my way.

Going Deeper…

I was doing some research into PSNH’s new PUC docket, and I realized something I knew all along: no one is willing to go deep. Or maybe no one has the capacity to go deep. Or the resources. I did my CPD/PSNH story for NHPR last week, and several people commented it didn’t get deep enough. I totally agree. Unfortunately NHPR doesn’t have the resources to devote half an hour to such a story. (I’m not sure NHPR listeners have the patience to listen to a half-hour version of it either.)

But there is always more. As I wrote the script I knew there was more, and as the news editor cut it down and revised it to fit the time slot I knew I was going to get to say less.

But what’s the solution? PSNH already gives significantly to NHPR, and so do New Hampshire residents (read: rate payers). Interest groups are contributing what they can. Which one should we ask to give more to allow for more depth in reporting that affects them? And what implications would that have on the stories? (The host read a PSNH underwriting tag about 10 minutes before my story aired on Wednesday night. I had to laugh when I heard it—nice coincidence.)

Norm said something on here about the model for democracy being broken. I don’t agree; I agree with the Winston Churchill quote more: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

The same can be said for journalism. It isn’t perfect. In fact, someone at the IGA on Monday told me they can’t believe how bad the paper is (they were talking about the daily). I wish I knew a better answer. I wish there was a way to allow people to take part in democracy, to get engaged in the debates, that didn’t neglect the depth.

I’ve been trying to figure out how I could change that in Berlin. The fact is being a reporter is more than a full-time job; news doesn’t happen on the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule. But running after the day’s or the week’s news doesn’t allow for enough context, enough depth, to tell people what they really need to know. It takes those parts that get edited out to really understand what’s going on.

So how do you revive what lays on the cutting room floor? I’m not sure. As a staff of one, freelancing and reporting via cell phone and Internet, it’s tough to see where their is room for expansion. I see the need, but not the market. How do you make it profitable for a paper like the Reporter to reopen an office in Berlin, expand the staff and increase coverage. How do you pay for a three thousand word story about the ins and outs of energy? How do you make that argument to a publisher, who is running the paper as a business, not a philanthropic endeavor?

I don’t know, but I see the need. I recognize the criticism my story got as valid, but I have to take it as criticism of a broken system. I would have loved to add the details, but there simply wasn’t time. How do you make time? That’s the real question.

Budgeting Berlin

The council passed a budget last night that laid off six city employees, all of them teachers. The police department, fire department and public works department all avoided layoffs.

It was a close finish to the most important part of the council’s year. If the council’s goals are the same next year they will face an even more challenging scenario, but they pulled it off this year.

A representative from one of the city employee’s unions told me last night they could have found an additional $300,000 in savings, but after the council rejected the teachers’ proposal no one else wanted to be next. That might be ingredient that enables the city to keep the tax rate flat next year.

$200,000 made it in to take down dilapidated properties the city got through tax deeding, and $200,000 more for street repair. While those are minuscule amounts compared to what the city needs the council is clearly committed to upgrading the city’s aging infrastructure, though it has limited resources.

So if you live in Berlin, your taxes shouldn’t go up and your services shouldn’t go way down. The battles may have left some bad blood (a firefighter spoke last night with some strong words for the council) and class sizes are going to go up, but the fire department isn’t getting any smaller.

Now the city just has to expand its tax base. Easier said than done.

On another note, if you’re looking for an update on the CPD/PSNH dispute listen to NHPR tonight. My story about how some people feel PSNH is deciding Berlin’s future through its control of the energy markets should air around 5:45 p.m. It will have the latest on the easement issue. I talked to a number of councilors about this, but I tried to restrict the voices to those of people in the middle, instead of ardent CPD supporters or opponents. I only had four minutes to explain years, but I think it came out well. Let me know what you think.

A PPA and more

It’s official: PSNH has reached an agreement with Laidlaw Berlin Biopower to buy their power. The PUC still has to approve the PPA to ensure it is in the best interests of the rate payers, but this is a big step toward getting financing for a major generation project for any private developer.

At the same time there are some new roadblocks to CPD’s project, which will be in next week’s paper (Tuesday night meetings vs. weekly paper schedule). Again it involves PSNH. Energy, it again seems, will be a big part of the coming Reporter.

I’m also seeing if I can do an NHPR story on CPD and Laidlaw.

At the end of Wednesday night’s meeting there was a short debate about the mayor’s position on the two plants, as well as those of several other councilors, which didn’t make it into my council story last week. I had to follow up on a major story I’d done two weeks before, and by the end of it I didn’t have room for a new version of on an old argument. Not that the argument is unimportant, but I simply didn’t have room.

In fact, a lot happened on Monday night that didn’t make it into either paper. That’s how it always happens. There just isn’t enough space dedicated to news to capture all that goes on at those meetings. Those decisions are made by publishers, but reporters, editors and citizens have to live with it.

It makes me wonder about all mediated messages. It’s impossible to follow all that’s going on, but it is imperative residents stay informed. The media doesn’t have room for all of it, but unfortunately in Berlin there is seldom any other account of events. When Mayor Grenier asked for public comment on Monday night at the start and end of the meeting the only person in the audience was Bobby Haggart. There funny looks from councilors who recognized the absurdity of the moment.

Thus my version of what happened, and that of the daily’s reporter (both inevitably incomplete), make up the story of Monday night’s meeting. The councilors also have their opinions of the discussion, but their views reflect their politics. Residents don’t have access to a complete, unbiased view of the meeting. A few more first hand accounts would be phenomenal.

(Some people would say the meeting minutes provide this, but I assure you they are incomplete; not in content, perhaps, but in emotion. The debates often involve backstory and personnel interactions that the secretary doesn’t write down. It’s like reading a script versus watching a movie—one doesn’t compare to the other.)

People come out for issues, but not to ensure their city is run to their liking. For day to day decisions, often only the reporters (and Mr. Haggart) are watching. And there just isn’t enough newsprint available to capture it all.

Do you ever notice the daily has three stories on Wednesday about what happened on Monday? They could do more, too, if they had a bigger news hole. It’s amazing how much goes on in the evenings at city hall, and how few residents are engaged.

But then again, maybe the silence is approval. The budget hearing last month was much quieter than I’d expected, considering teachers, cops, public works employees and firefighters are all getting laid off. Maybe Berlin is OK with that. Maybe even thought the papers can’t get the word out people are confident the politicians are doing a fine job. Aside from the occasional street name change perhaps everyone is happy.

That seems like a stretch. I’ve talked to many people who don’t like what’s going on there, but then I never see them at public comment times. Everyone who cares about the city must know the papers do not have the space to answer all the pressing questions, and residents have to take a keen interest if they want to see Berlin thrive. The best stories develop largely through interactions with residents and seeing what people care, often at these meetings. Media doesn’t act alone. It takes engaged citizens to generate engaging reporting. And it isn’t enough to just read the stories. People need to show up.

Long Days

There is a lot going on lately in Berlin. Yesterday I spent 10 hours in city hall, between the SEC technical session and the city budget meeting. It was interesting to watch Laidlaw and CPD face off yesterday. The technical session is really just a chance to ask the applicant for more data and for clarification about any points they made, but it did get a little heated toward the end. The two competitors are coming up with close time lines, and their consensus seems to be there is only room for one project. The next few months should be interesting.

And of course the email between Mel Liston of CPD and Jon Edwards has been making it’s way around the web. I’m supposed to talk to Mr. Liston later today, and I’ve still got to get in touch with Mr. Edwards to set up a time to talk to him. I’m hoping to get their side of the story for the story that will be in the paper next week. The email clearly raises questions.

Today is more of the same, with a 10 or 12 hour Berlin day. The focus, however, will be the budget rather than the SEC. Swing by city hall at 6 p.m. tonight if you want to watch the council in action working on the most important thing they do all year. The police department’s budget will be the opening topic, which should be interesting. It’ll be a good time to be watching.

More on Energy

Another North Country reporter, the unstoppable Edith Tucker, said the other day that she’s learned more about energy than she’d ever hoped working in Coös County. I agree.

I just got off the phone with Martin Murray, the spokesperson for PSNH. There are recent developments at the federal level that affect the Clean Power/PSNH discussion at the PUC, and I wanted PSNH’s opinion.

Mr. Murray and I have talked several times now, since a significant portion of my reporting has covered energy and PSNH. Each time, somewhere either in the middle or near the end, we start to dance around as I try to pin Mr. Murray into a corner on just how it is PSNH decides who to negotiate with. Mr. Murray wordsmiths knowingly past my best jabs, never giving more than he intends. He has put up with my incessant questions a number of times, which come from different directions but always with the same target. I rephrase and reword, but we keep going in circles. It is a merry-go-round I have come to expect, at least until the PUC rules on the topic.

I understand the CPD complaint to be that PSNH has to negotiate with the company in order to determine if they are achieving the least expensive option for rate payers. If they don’t negotiate with CPD, the logic goes, then how do they know CPD isn’t offering a lower price than the competition?

Mr. Murray’s explanation into the question doesn’t go so deep. Is PSNH required to negotiate with CPD? is the question, he said, and PSNH believes the answer is no.

I must admit, I’ve had a lot of conversations with both sides of this discussion, and I have looked at lots of documents. I am also not particularly familiar with the PUC’s process, or just how in deep they delve into the logic and the arguments that constitute the reasons behind their dockets. But the way I see it, on the surface, both companies are right, if there’s is the question you’re asking.

PSNH is not required to negotiate with CPD, according to the letter of the law. They are (or would have been) required to buy CPD’s power at the market rate under the federal PURPA guidelines, but that wasn’t what CPD was requesting. They wanted to negotiate, not invoke the federal standards.

So PSNH is right, if the PUC is looking at the argument at that level. There is nothing that says they have to negotiate with anyone; CPD is in no way special.

It’s hard to imagine, however, how PSNH can decide what offer to go with if they are unwilling to listen to the various offer. How do they know one power producer will generate power at a lower cost to the rate payer if they don’t at least entertain all offers?

But that’s digging deeper. I’m not sure if the PUC does that. CPD is asking the PUC to look beyond the letter of the law to the reasons behind it. PSNH is looking for a requirement to negotiate, and not finding one, they feel they have done no wrong. That may be where the complaint lands. Alternatively, CPD is looking at what it takes to achieve a least cost option and making a leap to negotiation as a requirement. Perhaps that is where the PUC will look.

Either is right, when the argument is framed in their language, and either is wrong if it isn’t. Where the PUC will land in this conversation is still unclear, but the generalizations “right” and “wrong” clearly do not apply.

I do see something else, however: a possible design for this recent moves in this dance. You’ll need the upcoming copy of the paper to get this, but I think I’ve stitched a bit of strategy together.

CPD’s complaint is now protected by a recent FERC ruling, so any decision the PUC makes will be enforceable regardless of the exemption granted PSNH (Confused? Check out this Wednesday’s Reporter.) But should CPD’s complaint fall on deaf ears they will no longer be protected by the FERC exemption. The exemption is in regards to this one pending complaint, not to CPD in general. Should CPD go back to PSNH and demand they buy CPD’s power under PURPA guidelines PSNH can point to the FERC waiver and deny the request. PSNH closed one avenue CPD could have taken to sell their power, even if it wasn’t the one CPD was going for. What looks like a loss for PSNH may actually be a win, as long as the PUC uses PSNH definitions for the complaint.

That is, of course, unless CPD is producing less than net 20 megawatts. Their proposal will generate between 17 and 22 megawatts, which cuts close to the FERC ruling cutoff. Then it becomes a matter of skirting the line, something CPD did at the SEC already with the 30 megawatt cutoff.

FERC may have given PSNH an insurance policy, at least in this one regard, but the question remains just how deep the PUC will go into the obligation and logic for negotiation, and who will be vindicated as a result. Either CPD and PSNH would win the argument if it was their rules the other were forced to follow. Now the PUC has to choose which version to abide by, and then the matter will be settled.

I don’t imagine, however, this was the last story I’ll write or the last post I’ll put up on the subject. More twists than a North Country road. My energy education, it seems, is still underway.

Comments and Conversations

There was an interesting comment made on a post from last week that I thought was worth delving into. I wrote out a long reply, and I thought it was a good enough question/discussion to become a post. As I’ve said in the past, I appreciate contradicting opinions here, because they make me think. Berliner’s question made me think, and write, why it is I don’t come out staunchly against the Laidlaw proposal, aside from the obvious fact that my profession precludes it. I know this discussion always gets people fired up, but a lot has been happening lately, so it’s worth revisiting as the SEC review moves forward.

One more thing:

I want to thank Berliner for the question, both for its content and its tone. It was asked with respect, which often evaporates in this discussion, particularly online. My opinion may not match yours, and I may have flaws in my logic. Anyone can welcome to disagree with me, and I encourage opposing viewpoints. I don’t erase any comments (except the spam I’ve been getting lately since I moved from Blogger, not sure what that’s about), but I appreciate thoughtful discussion more than vitriolic rants. Please follow Berliner’s lead and disagree cordially; insults don’t change minds.

Berliner’s comment:

Erik,

I know you cannot admit this because it would upset your good friends (Grenier, Rozek & Danderson) but doesn’t your gut tell you that having a biomass plant in the middle of the City won’t be real conducive to tourism development efforts? Open your mind for a minute and think of the possibilities of this City without heavy industry in the downtown area. Doesn’t that seem like a wonderful opportunity to you? I know you don’t have children but if you did and if you lived on the East side of Berlin would you want your child to grow up in the shadow of a biomass plant? Do you like recreating in the woods or do you enjoy hiking through miles of clear cuts? If you try hard enough, I think you might begin to realize that the City of Berlin (and Coos County for that matter) is much better off without Laidlaw than it will be with it.

Now that I’m off my soap box I’d love to hear why you believe a biomass plant in downtown Berlin is such a great idea for this City. The Pros of the plant do not even come close to outweighing the Cons. There are only 2 benefits; 40 jobs and some added tax revenue. That is not enough for me to welcome Laidlaw to my community with open arms.

What do you say my friend? Do you have an opinion or are you simply convinced that Grenier in his infinite wisdom knows what is best for the City and therefore we should all capitulate to this car salesman while he tries to sell us a lemon?

Berliner

My reply:

Berliner —

Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

I see a bright future for Berlin with or without a biomass plant in the center of the city. Berlin’s future isn’t dependent on the success or failure of the Laidlaw proposal, or, for that matter, the Clean Power Development proposal. It is dependent on the city’s ability to diversify its economy after a century of relying on one industry. Today no single project can turn the city around, and no single project can bring it down.

Would 40 jobs help? Yes. Would 100 logging and trucking jobs help? Yes. Would cleaning up the mill site and transforming it into a productive space provide benefits? Yes. Will it be the key that turns Berlin’s future around? No.

Berlin’s future, in my mind, is a ship in mid-turn. Even if both biomass plants get built they won’t create as many jobs as the federal prison. A river-walk and cheap steam to the Cascade mill in two years won’t do as much to revitalize the city as the millions of dollars being spent to rehabilitate whole neighborhoods. The ATV park is one part of Berlin’s future, the college is another. Main Street retail shops and the state prison fill another niche. The future of Berlin is in the mix, not one industry, and that mix is still growing and developing. Someday soon Berlin may have a truly diverse economy, but the ship has to keep turning to make that happen.

A biomass plant won’t jeopardize this new path. A redeveloped mill site won’t close the prison. It won’t close the ATV park. It won’t stop the educational opportunities at WMCC, and it won’t reverse the rehabilitation the city’s neighborhoods are undergoing.

Are there legitimate concerns? Absolutely. If loggers strip the forest bare in order to feed the biomass plants it would threaten recreational tourism, a key portion of the city’s future. If either company is out to make a quick buck off Berlin instead of follow through on its commitment that would be a problem. But those concerns are not the same as to whether Berlin can survive with a biomass plant in its downtown.

Berlin can survive no matter what. Berlin residents have seen hard times, and better times are on the horizon. The biomass plants, should they be built or should they fail, are simply a bump along Berlin’s journey. They are one more possibility, one possible slice of Berlin’s future economic base.

The truth of it is I don’t exactly agree with either side. Mayor Grenier and Councilor Danderson seem to think this project will be Berlin’s savior. It won’t. But opponents seem to think it will be Berlin’s undoing. It won’t. It may or may not happen, and whether it does or not Berlin will have to continue to spread its economic tentacles for a sustainable future.

I understand the argument of both, but I agree with neither. The project won’t save the city, but it also won’t end all possibilities for other development. I know it’s in the center of town, but what do the Main Street people always say? A city’s face is it’s Main Street. Energy might be better spent supporting growth there than fighting development elsewhere.

Instead, energy has been squandered in this debate. People spend hours protesting this one project, while other projects, like Rumorz Boutique, fail. What if opponents of Laidlaw became vocal supports of Main Street? What would that do? What if supporters of Laidlaw became active opponents of slumlords? What would Berlin turn into then? I understand the ideological divide, but I lament the lost possibilities. Berlin will succeed or fail based on its overall economic diversity, which is far more encompassing than one project. A biomass plant on the mill site matters little in the long run.

If the SEC does their job the project will either be well-run or will never get off the ground—either works fine for me. Berlin’s future is based on more than just this one project, and this one project doesn’t have the ability to end the city’s rise.

Again, I do appreciate your comments and the thoughtful discussion.

Quick aside: I didn’t address Berliner’s question about kids playing around the stacks. I have never looked into questions of the safety of emissions from biomass plants. That would be an interesting conversation for the industry as a whole, not just Laidlaw, CPD. and Berlin I’ve heard some talk about it in discussions about the projects, but I don’t know about its impact overall. Hmm… I smell a story here.

SEC Speech

Update: Part two is now up. I’ll be uploading the full audio as well, since YouTube trimmed a bit off.

This is the first part of Mayor Grenier’s presentation. The second part is still making its way though my computer; processing HD video takes some time. I’ll get it up in a bit, so people who missed the meeting can see what was said. It caused a stir, so I’m hoping it’ll serve as reference for anyone who missed it.

Part One

Part Two

Subtle Splits

City council last night went late last night because they had to return to the work session to discuss what Mayor Grenier will say tonight in the council’s name at the SEC hearing. That discussion broke down along predictable lines for a time, until the speech was reduced to language that was amenable to all councilors. It was an interesting debate, one that seemed largely Mayor Grenier versus the former council members.

Not that all the former council members are opposed to Laidlaw. Councilors David Poulin, Tim Cayer and Tom McCue are pretty staunchly opposed, but Councilor Ryan Landry has a more subtle positions: he said he needs more questions to be answered before he can get behind the project.

Councilors Mark Evans and Lucie Remillard are both in favor of the project (or, to more accurately represent Councilor Evans, he doesn’t feel the city has the right to dictate what a private landowner does with their property), but they spoke up against any effort to bowl over the minority opinion. Councilor Evans even objected to the tone Mayor Grenier was using because he said it didn’t convey respect for divergent viewpoints.

Councilor Robert Danderson raised some points in favor of the project, but he also said he had concerns about how either biomass company will survive in the current energy market. He is concerned about the project, he said, but he’s more concerned no development will occur and Berlin will continue on its downward slide.

Councilor Rozak largely kept his mouth closed. He only commented that he would like to see a sheet listing the jobs and corresponding salaries Laidlaw will offer, and that he wanted to hear the council’s opinion on the revised language of the speech. He did not get caught up in the discussion, particularly when it got heated.

The exchange got my 600 words my writeup about council this week, so if you want more pick up the Reporter. What I found interesting about the night was a few hours earlier. During some routine business Councilors Cayer, Landry, McCue and Poulin voted in opposition to removing a resolution from the table. They then voted in opposition to killing the resolution. The resolution was for a grant for a local agency that withdrew their request, so I’m not exactly sure why this happened. Then, a few resolutions later, Councilors Landry, McCue and Poulin voted against another resolution. This one I could understand the opposition, but understand that every other vote was unanimous last night, and there were perhaps 30 votes.

I’m going to try to find out what’s going on. It seemed to me an opposition coalition was forming last night, but that may be completely wrong. It was an interesting chain of events, however, and hopefully I’ll be able to explain it better in the coming weeks.

SEC update

While Tuesday will likely be the big event in Berlin, the Laidlaw review started in earnest on Thursday in Concord. At the pre-hearing conference the SEC outside counsel went over the schedule and petitioners’ plans for testimony. The Reporter will have my full story (finished it earlier today, 750 words). It will likely get lost, however, as the Berlin hearings are the night before my paper comes out, but there was some important discussions there that should come out.

SEC outside counselor Michael Iacopino brought up an interesting problem for people worried about wood: fuel supply has not traditionally been part of the SEC’s mandate. When a coal powered facility opens in New Hampshire the SEC doesn’t ask where they are getting their coal, he said, and if an oil or natural gas plant were to open they wouldn’t ask then either. So it is imperative, he said, that petitioners point out why the issue they are raising falls under the SEC’s purview. Look at the law, he said, and make sure it is there.

The statute that creates and tasks the SEC does talk about “the overall economic growth of the state, the environment of the state, and the use of natural resources” when describing why the legislature created the SEC, but it is unclear how that applies to wood.

Transmission raises similar issues, since ISO New England doesn’t fall under the SEC, and therefore the committee cannot force them to do anything. There may be forces beyond the committee’s control in in these proceedings, and two of the key issues people are concerned about may be among them.

Transmission and wood supply were the most repeated concerns raised by potential intervenors. Now the attorneys are going to have to go to work, to formulate convincing arguments as to why the SEC should concern itself with these issues. Since the law doesn’t clearly include either of these in their jurisdiction it may take some legal gymnastics to make the arguments stick. I’m interested to see where that goes.

But for people concerned about the appearance of the project, the attorney representing the public, Senior Assistant Attorney General Allen Brooks, said one of his concerns was whether the project will fit within the community. He wanted to make sure it wouldn’t be an eyesore, he said. Whether it is or not depends largely on how you feel about the project overall, I imagine, so that will be a tough issue to sort out cleanly. But the public counsel has certainly heard the concerns of some Berlin residents. Now we’ve got seven more months to see where this all goes.