Heath Bunnell has for the past 17 years supplied wood to a facility in Ryegate, Vermont, which generates electricity from burning wood. The fourth-generation lumberjacks never had a problem getting paid until Stored Solar took over the biomass operations years ago.
At one point, the West Enfield, Maine-based company owed Bunnell $63,000. The total is now lower, but it still owes him more than $24,000, he wrote in a letter to the Vermont Public Utilities Commission last month.
Now Stored Solar has filed for bankruptcy, and Bunnell is among dozens of New England lumberjacks who the company still owes money.
In Maine, Stored Solar benefited from a multimillion-dollar subsidy package aimed at keeping its two biomass plants in West Enfield and Jonesboro afloat on taxpayers’ money and maintaining an important market for logging. But the company has only operated its facilities intermittently and still owes loggers money from deliveries made more than five years ago, according to the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine.
There are similar stories from the company’s operations elsewhere in New England.
In Vermont, Stored Solar has benefited from an agreement that guarantees it above-average prices for the electricity its Ryegate facility produces, but it’s still indebted to lumberjacks like Bunnell. And the four New Hampshire biomass plants that Stored Solar acquired after they closed in 2020 have operated intermittently since then, depriving loggers there of a reliable market at a time of upheaval in the forest products industry.
Loggers in the three northern New England states will have a keen interest in the outcome of the company’s bankruptcy case, which is being heard in US Bankruptcy Court in Bangor. But they are unlikely to be the first to collect the money owed to them. And they will continue to be affected by the lack of a reliable market for biomass.
“These were very, very significant markets,” said Jasen Stock, executive director of the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association, of Stored Solar’s four biomass plants in Bethlehem State, Springfield, Tamworth and Whitefield. “We looked at statistics and data on wood chip production, and for the amount of all the running plants, well over half of the wood harvested in the state was at any given time being chipped and used to generate electricity or electricity.”
Now, the inconsistent operation of the facilities is having a “disruptive” impact on the market, Stock said, particularly for loggers who need reassurance.
“We are seeing implications of this type of contraction in low-grade lumber markets due to the outage and sporadic, intermittent operation of these facilities,” Stock said. “With this contraction, the impact went well beyond the lumberjack and the forester. As a result, lumberjacks produce fewer logs, so you now have sawmills starving for logs.”
There are also uncertainties surrounding the operation of Stored Solar in Vermont.
For years, the plant has benefited from an agreement that requires utilities to buy its power at an above-market rate of 10.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. As a result, Vermonters have committed about $5 million a year to keep the Ryegate plant running, the VTDigger reported in 2021.
Vermont lawmakers approved a new 10-year contract for the Ryegate plant this year, but the details of that contract are pending the state utility commission, according to VTDigger. Meanwhile, the Commission has approved a six-month extension to the current above-market contract for the plant, which now expires in April 2023.
While the Ryegate plant is still guaranteed above-market electricity rates, it pays its suppliers late and inconsistently, according to public comments filed with the Vermont Public Utility Commission.
“You have these operators of the facility who are essentially for-profit, and in the midst of all of this, which a lot of people are unfamiliar with, they’ve stopped paying their bills,” said Sam Lincoln, who owns a logging operation at the Randolph Center. Vermont, and is a former Deputy Commissioner of the State Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. “They stopped paying the loggers who supply them.”
Loggers in Vermont and northern New Hampshire have supplied the Ryegate facility for decades and expect routine, timely payments, Lincoln said. That didn’t happen under stored solar, although preferential treatment continued in the electricity market, Lincoln said.
“There was a little dust about that and eventually the bills got paid and time went by,” he said. “Then it got worse. They have failed in their obligations to lumberjacks in New Hampshire. There are Vermont loggers who did business with these plants, and the payments came very late. And then they filed for bankruptcy.”
Stored Solar owner Bill Harrington did not respond to a request for comment last week, nor did the company’s bankruptcy attorney, George Marcus.
Earlier this month, Marcus told BDN that Stored Solar’s aim “is to ensure that all of its creditors are paid in full at the earliest possible date”.
On Tuesday, Judge Michael Fagone appointed Portland attorney Anthony Manhart as trustee in Stored Solar’s bankruptcy case.
Lumberjacks in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont will be closely following the company’s bankruptcy case.
“We’re excited to see how this plays out,” said Stock of the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association. “Our hope is that these facilities, at least some of them, will be operational by the end of the day.”