In some cases, Stored Solar owes money to loggers for biomass deliveries made more than five years ago.
A logging truck passes the Enfield substation where power from Stored Solar's biomass plant connects to the regional power grid. Stored Solar filed for bankruptcy in September. Credit: Darren Fishell / BDN

Heath Bunnell has supplied wood for the last 17 years to a facility in Ryegate, Vermont, that produces electricity from burning wood. The fourth-generation logger never had a problem getting paid until Stored Solar acquired the biomass operation years ago.

At one point, the company, with its headquarters in West Enfield, Maine, owed Bunnell $63,000. The total is lower now, but it still owes him more than $24,000, he wrote last month in a letter to Vermont’s public utility commission.

Now, Stored Solar has declared bankruptcy, and Bunnell is among the dozens of New England loggers to whom the company still owes money.

In Maine, Stored Solar benefited from a multimillion-dollar subsidy package designed to keep its two biomass plants in West Enfield and Jonesboro afloat with taxpayer money and preserve a crucial market for loggers. But the company has only run its plants intermittently, and still owes money to loggers from deliveries more than five years ago, according to the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine.

There are similar stories emanating from the company’s operations elsewhere in New England.

In Vermont, Stored Solar has benefited from an arrangement that guarantees it above-market rates for the power its Ryegate facility produces, yet it’s still in debt to loggers such as Bunnell. And the four New Hampshire biomass plants that Stored Solar acquired in 2020 after they had shut down have operated only intermittently since, depriving loggers there of a dependable market during a time of upheaval in the forest products industry.

Loggers across the three northern New England states will have a keen interest in the outcome of the company’s bankruptcy case as it proceeds in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Bangor. But they’re unlikely to be the first in line to collect money they’re owed. And they’ll continue to be affected by the lack of a dependable biomass market.

“Those were very, very significant markets,” Jasen Stock, executive director of the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association, said of Stored Solar’s four biomass plants in the state, located in Bethlehem, Springfield, Tamworth and Whitefield. “We’ve looked at statistics and data on wood chip production, and in the height of all the facilities running, well over half of the wood being harvested in the state at one point was being chipped and used to make electricity or power.”

Now the plants’ inconsistent operations have a “disruptive” effect on the market, Stock said, especially for loggers who need certainty.

“We’re seeing impacts with this kind of contraction of the low-grade wood markets due to the loss and kind of sporadic, intermittent operation of these facilities,” Stock said. “With that contraction, the impact has gone well beyond just the logger and the forester. As a result, loggers are producing fewer sawlogs, so now you have sawmills hungry for saw logs.”

There’s also uncertainty surrounding Stored Solar’s operation in Vermont.

The facility has benefited for years from an arrangement that has required utilities to buy its energy at an above-market rate of 10.5 cents per kilowatt hour. As a result, Vermonters have supplied about $5 million a year to keep the Ryegate plant running, the VTDigger reported in 2021.

Vermont lawmakers this year approved a new 10-year contract for the Ryegate plant, but the details of that contract are pending before the state’s utility commission, according to the VTDigger. In the meantime, the commission has approved a six-month extension of the plant’s current, above-market contract, which now expires in April 2023.

While the Ryegate facility is still guaranteed an above-market rate for its power, it’s paying its suppliers late and inconsistently, according to public comments filed with the Vermont Public Utility Commission.

“You have these operators of the plant that are essentially legislated a profit and in the midst of all that, unknown to a lot of people, is they stopped paying their bills,” said Sam Lincoln, who owns a logging operation in Randolph Center, Vermont, and is a former deputy commissioner of the state’s Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation. “They stopped paying the loggers supplying them.”

Loggers in Vermont and northern New Hampshire have supplied the Ryegate facility for decades, and have come to expect routine, timely payment, Lincoln said. That hasn’t happened under Stored Solar, although its favorable treatment in the power market has continued, Lincoln said.

“There was a little dust-up over that and the bills got paid eventually and time went on,” he said. “Then it got worse. They defaulted on their obligations to loggers in New Hampshire. There are Vermont loggers that were doing business with those plants, and the payments became very untimely. And then they declared 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 the BDN that Stored Solar’s objective “is to see that all of its creditors are paid in full, at the earliest possible time.”

On Tuesday, Judge Michael Fagone appointed a Portland attorney, Anthony Manhart, the trustee in Stored Solar’s bankruptcy case.

Loggers in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont will follow the company’s bankruptcy case closely.

“We’re kind of curious to see how it will play out,” said Stock of the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association. “Our hope is, at the end of the day, that these facilities, at least a couple of them, will be able to run.”

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Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is a reporter covering Old Town, Orono and the surrounding areas. A recent graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he's worked for Vermont Public Radio, The...