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Town sees potential of timber as fuel

The boiler remains at the site of the paper mill that supplied hundreds of jobs for decades in Berlin, N.H., Jan. 13. After decades of decline in the local paper industry, the town hopes plans for electricity plants that use wood as fuel will bring it back to life.  AP Photo by Jim Cole

The boiler remains at the site of the paper mill that supplied hundreds of jobs for decades in Berlin, N.H., Jan. 13. After decades of decline in the local paper industry, the town hopes plans for electricity plants that use wood as fuel will bring it back to life. AP Photo by Jim Cole

Stimulus could sprout renewable energy

Beth LaMontagne Hall
AP Writer

Berlin, NH — The decades-long decline of the local paper industry finally did in Berlin’s smoke-belching pulp mill in 2006.

Today, the thousands of acres of surrounding forest have some eyeing the city as something else: a future renewable energy hub.

The economic stimulus bill that makes billions of dollars available for homegrown, renewable energy has residents of this small city 80 miles from the Canadian border sensing a turnaround.

Two electricity plants that would burn waste timber from the surrounding forest are in the works, as is a plant that would make the wood pellets used as fuel. But the area needs costly transmission line upgrades before power plants can be fired up.

State Sen. John Gallus is pitching the upgrades as part of a renewable energy pilot project.

“Every state around is looking for these giant handouts from Washington right now but we’re figuring we have kind of a two-fer going here,” Gallus said. “It’s a big infrastructure improvement and it’s a renewable energy resource. This is two of the incoming president’s big things he’d like to start with and we’d like to help him.”

Known as the city that trees built, Berlin once thrived on its paper pulp mill. Since the mill closed, housing prices have plummeted and Main Street shops have struggled to stay afloat. City leaders have been looking to give the city an economic boost.

They may have found the answer in the three wood-biofuel projects. Laidlaw Energy Group wants to build a 66-megawatt wood-burning power plant, employing 40, on the site of the former pulp mill. The wood-pellet factory scheduled to break ground this spring will create about 35 jobs. The second wood-burning power plant, on the Androscoggin River, will put two dozen people to work.

Company officials say jobs in the plants will indirectly create 700 more jobs over time.

“That all gets spent in the Berlin area,” said Bill Gabler, project manager at Clean Power Development LLC.

“Those guys take their wives out to dinner and buy new furniture, so the trickle-down effect on the economy in the area is really pretty significant.”

But before the proposed power plants can go online, the electrical transmission line that would carry power from Berlin to the rest of New England may have to be upgraded.

It doesn’t have the capacity to handle the two plants and the other projects proposed for the thinly populated North Country, and upgrading the line is estimated to cost more than $100 million.

The state could pay for it or ask regional power manager ISO New England to help get surrounding states to pitch in, but with states slashing spending, Gallus said Washington is the most promising source.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen wants the power line upgrades included in New Hampshire’s stimulus money and the region’s congressman, Rep. Paul Hodes, believes increased transmission capacity could create more jobs and bring more affordable energy to the region.

Though residents generally support biomass energy, Laidlaw’s plan to redevelop the old mill site has met with some resistance.

Barbara Guay, owner of Gill’s Flower Shop on Main Street, said after decades of a big, smoke-spewing mill in the center of downtown, she’d rather see a grand hotel or a casino on the prime, riverside plot. But Guay understands her business can’t survive unless the city brings in more jobs.

“People aren’t going to buy flowers when they need food and fuel,” she said.

Dick Huot, who heads economic development for Berlin-based Tri-County Community Action, said the city should add jobs any way it can until it gets back on its feet. He said Laidlaw can help by doing all it can to expand opportunities in the city.

“The biomass plant is like cod liver oil,” he said. “If we have to take it, how can you sweeten it for us?”

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