Michael O’Leary’s place of employment doesn’t, at first, look like part of the forest-products industry. The facility is dominated by a huge, Titanic-size smokestack, and seriously thick electrical wires and cables line their way into the property like cabling for a monster stage set. There’s nary a log to be seen — but there is an impressively large pile of woodchips at Bridgewater Power.
“These biomass energy plants, like Bridgewater Power, are very much an extension of the forest products industry,” he says. “I don’t think they were always seen that way, but in my career here I hope I have helped the industry make that connection, because it’s a great connection. What happens at the biomass plants has a real impact on the industry.”
That’s no exaggeration. Without the market for woodchips supported by New Hampshire’s biomass energy plants, the market for low-grade wood, which comprises three-quarters of all the wood harvested in the state, would seriously decline, perhaps even collapse. That’s why O’Leary was at the forefront of last year’s effort, supported by the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association, to pass Senate Bill 365, which requires Eversource, the state’s largest utility, to establish power contracts with the state’s six independent biomass energy plants, including Bridgewater. The bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support but was vetoed by Governor Sununu (who during his first campaign for governor, in 2016, met with O’Leary and other forest industry leaders at the Bridgewater plant to extoll the virtues of homegrown biomass energy). A summer-long campaign, also spearheaded in part by O’Leary, successfully overturned the veto in September.
For his commitment to biomass and the woodchip market biomass energy plants support, Michael O’Leary is this year’s honoree with the Kendall Norcott Award. “The Kendall Norcott Award honors exceptional service to our organization and our members,” says Jasen Stock, NHTOA’s executive director, “and Michael’s tireless work on behalf of biomass and legislation supporting biomass makes him an ideal Kendall Norcott recipient. His help and support have never been less than totally consistent and invaluable.”
O’Leary has been at Bridgewater Power for 30 years, and is now the operation’s general manager. A native of Winchester, Mass., he attended the Massachusetts Maritime Academy following high school, and then spent eight years as an engineer in the merchant marine. “Actually, there are a lot of ex-merchant marines in the energy industry,” he says, noting that Robert Lussier, general manager of Pine Tree Power-Tamworth, is another. “That’s because being an engineer on a merchant ship means that you’re basically an engineer for a power plant that happens to be on the water.”
These days, Michael lives on Squam Lake in Holderness, N.H., with his wife Cindy. Michael enjoys fishing (freshwater and saltwater), golf, and boating in his spare time.
Despite the political battles and market forces that sometimes cause political and business leaders to question the viability of biomass energy, O’Leary remains optimistic about biomass’s future in New Hampshire. For one thing, the state has more trees now than it ever has; low-grade/woodchip use in biomass plants actually helps forests become healthier, as low-grade wood is removed to promote more vibrant, higher-grade growth. For another, Michael says, “Biomass is a base-loaded renewable resource. Unlike solar or wind or hydro power, the wood resource is available 24-7. It’s always there, and it is abundant. Not only that, but it helps diversify our energy market, and history has shown us that a diversified energy grid is much better than one that’s reliant on a resource like natural gas that may be cheap and available today but isn’t renewable and won’t be cheap and available forever.”