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Plan to revive Concord Steam would fizzle under bill Senate committee approves


By NICK REID

The hopes of the energy company Green City Power to revive Concord Steam will be dashed if a Senate committee’s recommendation holds.

In a 3-0 vote Wednesday, with two absent members, the Capital Budget Committee amended and approved House Bill 368, which authorizes the state to decommission Concord Steam and find replacement heating sources for the 25 state-owned buildings it serves.

The amendment broadened the financing methods that can be used to pay for the up to $25 million conversion.

Representatives of the state Department of Administrative Services said they’ve hired engineers to develop solutions for each building. Deputy Commissioner Mike Connor said the fuel sources will include wood pellets, biodiesel and waste oil. But the bulk will be natural gas, and none will be Green City Power’s specialty: district heating.

“We’re not going out to bid for a district steam heating solution,” Connor told the Senate committee. “The decision was made to move away from that and to go with our decentralized plan,” he said.

Connor said his department balked at Green City Power’s proposal to rebuild and continue operating the plant as normal because it required an inflexible and expensive long-term contract.

“The offer was basically, if you can imagine at your home ... the oil dealer coming up to you and saying, ‘I know you’re paying $1.08 per gallon, but I’ve got a great deal for you. Sign up for $3.37 a gallon for the next 20 years,” he said.

But a Green City Power representative, Managing Partner Aaron Walters, testified to say that he never demanded a 20-year contract – and, he said, until Wednesday, he’d had a difficult time getting in the same room as authorities who could spell out the desired terms of a contract.

“We’ve tried at exhaustion to express our willingness to be flexible on terms ... and we have not received any interest from people in voicing what they would like to see, so that we could respond and provide a thoughtful proposal,” Walters said.

While Connor said the state could recoup the cost of the conversion within 12 years – because steam currently costs so much more than alternative fuels – Walters looked also at the benefit that the city and its downtown businesses could derive if the plant survives.

“The total potential estimated loss to the state and the taxpayers and businesses over that 20-year time period could approach $100 million,” Walters said. “A decision of this potential magnitude should be made thoughtfully, with consideration given to the New Hampshire taxpayers, businesses and voters.”

Dozens of residents packed into the State House meeting room in opposition to the bill and in support of Walters’ proposal. Several suggested that the state embracing natural gas amounted to a rebuke of climate science.

Republican state Sen. Gary Daniels questioned whether Walters believed that the senators should base their decision on something more broad than being one consumer in the marketplace.

“Are you suggesting that we make our decision based on the impact of everyone, as opposed to looking at it as a sole customer?” Daniels asked.

Walters replied that wouldn’t tell the senators how to vote, but he meant to point out that “there are externalities to your decision-making process,” when he noted that the value of Concord businesses could decrease if Concord Steam goes under.

The centralized steam heating plant plans to cease operations May 31. Many of its customers are working to convert away from Concord Steam – and Walters admitted he was unsure exactly how the reduced customer base would affect his plan.

Several of the citizen attendees, who carried signs and registered an almost unanimous disapproval of the bill, were thinking beyond the state’s bottom line.

John Gage, a software engineer from Lincoln, said he couldn’t help thinking about his 13-year-old daughter’s future when state officials choose to use taxpayer dollars expanding usage of fossil fuels.

“I can’t understand how we can continue making short-term decisions, trying to save a little money, ignoring the body of science, which says clearly where we’re headed,” he said. “I’m not here as a proponent for any particular solution, but to say choosing fossil fuels – to use tax dollars in a big project that is going to maybe go 10 or 15 years – is not voting the right way with our money.”

But more than two hours into the hearing, Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, a Democrat who wasn’t an official member of the committee, said she made a realization.

“In a sense, really, the time for something like Green (City) Power to come in and say, ‘We have a plan to be able to continue steam’ – that process is no longer viable?” she said.

“Correct,” Connor replied. “That horse left the barn a long time ago.”

In an interview after the hearing, Walters said if the bill passes the full Legislature as recommended Wednesday, it will mean Green City Power has no place in Concord.

As for his reaction to the hearing, he said it was “interesting and educational,” but he declined to elaborate on what exactly it was that he learned.

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