Editor’s note: This commentary is by Karl Meyer, of Greenfield, Massachusetts. He has been participating as a stakeholder and member of the Fish and Aquatics Study Team in the five-year FERC relicensing process for the Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls projects since 2013. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. See more of his writing about the Connecticut River at: www.karlmeyerwriting.com/blog.
Can New England’s great river survive more decades of pumped storage generation? Long-term licensing by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission could lock out new river-sparing energy storage choices.
Dr. Boyd Kynard, retired federal expert on the Connecticut River’s migratory fish and endangered shortnose sturgeon, tells a story about bass fishing in Massachusetts around 1990. He was drifting near the French King Bridge, a mile downstream of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station’s subsurface tunnels, when he glanced up and realized his boat had switched directions. It was being pulled upstream, “And at a pretty good clip.” Turbines at that Northfield plant had sucked New England’s river into reverse for at least a mile. This was nothing new, save that in this instance there was a daytime witness.
In December a radio feature from Boston’s WBUR entitled “New England’s Largest Battery is Hidden Inside a Mass. Mountain” was rebroadcast widely in the Northeast. Referencing Ben Franklin, James Bond, even the Bat Cave, it painted a rosy future for the 1,200 quick-start megawatts stored in a reservoir at the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station. Roaring turbines were noted as company spokespeople staked claim to the plant’s “green” future as they bid to lock in a new 50-year Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license. The occasional ring of an old phone connected directly to ISO-New England — the grid’s “independent system operator” — was described as “the sound of money.”
Altogether missing in that story was Northfield Mountain’s violent mining of the Connecticut River. That ecosystem artery was never identified as the sole water source enabling it to regenerate electricity. Prior to Northfield construction, the Connecticut had forever run seaward from the Canadian border to the tidal zone near Hartford. But 12,000 years of New England natural history changed in 1972, on the day Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station came on line.
On Jan. 22, 1974, two years after it began operation using overproduced nuclear megawatts then available on the grid at night to fill a 5 billion gallon reservoir, the Federal Power Commission (today’s FERC) notified Western Massachusetts Electric Co. it required their “earliest response” on Northfield’s impacts for a draft environmental impact statement: “Since the Northfield Mountain project became operational, which of the conditions described have been observed to produce reverse flows?” WMECO’s lawyers belatedly replied on Oct. 16, 1974, they didn’t have the information. Questions about environmental impacts and reversing rivers went unanswered.
In 1967 a federal Connecticut River migratory fisheries program to restore American shad to historic upstream reaches in Vermont and New Hampshire got underway. That same year the embattled Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon was listed under the Endangered Species Act. Exactly 50 years later, recovery goals for hundreds of thousands of spawning shad and thousands of shortnose sturgeon remain utterly unfulfilled. Spawning habitat access for both are impacted by Northfield’s suck and surge flows, which also create daily bank-eroding 4-foot “tides” along this reach, sometimes reaching to 10 feet.
Pictured in a less glowing light, Northfield Mountain station is a 45-year-old dinosaur — a formerly nuclear-powered, net-loss energy transfer machine hacked out of the bowels of a mountain. With the region’s nukes now shuttered, it runs daily on imported electricity and has never produced a watt of virgin power. Today it’s a quick-start, high-profit operation relying on boatloads of fossil-fueled megawatts purchased in bulk on the wholesale market. Suctioning the river uphill, it later releases those waters down through its turbines in dense pulses — pumping out 25 percent less juice than the virgin power it consumes.
Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station is not renewable energy, nor anything resembling the public’s idea of hydropower. It reproduces just a fraction of New England’s power at peak times, and peak prices, but can only generate for eight hours maximum. After that it is literally dead, its reserves spent. The Canadian-owned plant must then start consuming juice by reversing its turbines anew, yanking the river backward, sideways and a mile uphill for hours into its reservoir.
That pumping occurs nightly at rates of up to 15,000 cubic feet per second. Picture 15,000 milk crates filled with a living river — every second for hours at a time. For more than two-thirds of the year the Connecticut’s “natural routed flow” — the water moving into and through this reach, is less than 15,000 cfs. Thus this plant is consuming more water than is entering the river. That’s how to turn an ecosystem on its head. The result is the evisceration of all manner of aquatic life, juiced twice through those turbines — tens of thousands of resident and migrating fish, millions of developing eggs, and their young. There’s nothing more violent you can do to a river.
Now the Canada Public Pension Investment Fund — latest in the decade’s revolving door of four different venture-capital owners of the FirstLight Power Resources-branded plant, is angling to lock those ecosystem assaults in place for another half century through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s five-year hydro relicensing process.
Northfield continues today as an expensive, profoundly-damaging energy relay device whose net-loss operations chew apart a critical four-state artery daily.
In its planning stages one model would’ve required Northfield to shut down during fish migration season due to impacts. That didn’t happen. Still, a chance experiment in 2010 gave a belated glimpse of those potential benefits. For half a year, from mid-spring through a hot summer into early November, the Northfield Mountain station sat broken, sanctioned and off-line. But seven miles downstream the migrating shad normally impacted by its violent suck-and-flush flows made great and unexpected gains in tandem with that spring break. Having languished for decades, the federal program to move American shad upstream into Vermont and New Hampshire saw a stunning boost at Turners Falls Dam. Shad passage jumped over 700 percent above the previous 10-year average — 16,440 shad swam past the dam in 2010, compared to the 2,260 annually over the previous 10 years. Though meager, it was by far the best result since Massachusetts energy deregulation came to the Northfield Mountain reach of river in 1999.
On that May 1, 2010, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station had choked on the tons of silt and eroded riverbanks it constantly sucks into its reservoir. In attempting to clear that mucked-in lake a mile of mud-slumped tunnels resulted. Desperate, they began dumping it directly into the Connecticut at a rate equaling 30-40 dump truck loads a day. FirstLight’s sludge turned a mile of river brown for weeks. A contractor died when a suction hose broke loose.
Severe thunderstorms on May 27, 2010, resulted in tens of thousands of western New England power outages, many lasting for days. Yet as a back-up energy plant, Northfield’s sole output that week was more of the 45,000 cubic square yards of muck they’d eventually dump directly into the river. They succeeded for over 90 days, until they got caught. On Aug. 10, 2010, the EPA issued a cease-and-desist order citing FirstLight for “polluting the navigable waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act.
Throughout Northfield Mountain’s half-year off-line — and record-breaking summer heat in the Northeast — the purportedly ever-hungry, ever-fragile grid ISO-New England claims makes Northfield’s dense, quick-start functions so indispensible, never faltered or failed — not even when the nearby( now closed) Vermont Yankee nuclear plant went down in June to refuel.
Northfield Mountain’s main claim to its indispensability came 14 years ago during the 2003 August blackout. Its quick start power was employed by ISO-New England to smooth out Massachusetts’ reconnection to the New York sector of the Northeast’s mega-grid — which had failed due to a computer glitch in Ohio. That sprawling network would have been re-energized regardless, but Northfield’s dense energy provided a convenient assist and made ISO’s job easier. But are rare-hour emergencies enough to justify more decades of Northfield Mountain’s daily destructive use? In truth — what would amount to virtual energy storage monopoly, need not be locked in, de facto, by FERC as this region’s energy future for decades to come. There are other options.
“Pumped hydro is the most cost-effective way to store electricity,” that story stated flatly. But in September 2016 the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center released a study: “Massachusetts Energy Storage Initiative: State of Charge.” It noted the Bay State lags behind in innovation and deployed energy storage, ranking 23rd nationally. However, comparing new storage technologies now available to the costs of pumped storage, it noted three that will all readily out-compete pumped storage costs by 2018: lithium ion, flow battery and compressed air storage.
These local/regional storage solutions are already coming into use in New England. They create distributed generation and safer, more reliable micro-grids — less vulnerable to mass outages and mega-grid cyber attack and failure. They also create jobs. Certainly they are more attractive to consumers than sending local solar and wind across New England to recharge a river-crippling machine — and repurchase that juice later at inflated consumer prices.
That story mentioned Northfield’s 18,000 panel solar array — enough for a few hundred homes. But that tax-deductable FirstLight solar field actually covers the huge scar left over from acres of EPA-mandated settling ponds — sludge pools required in 2010 when they had to dredge their mountain of muck back out of the river. Also not mentioned were handsome payments Northfield Mountain collects when it chooses not to generate any power. They accrue through a FERC mechanism known as “capacity fees.” If “spot market” prices aren’t sweet enough, FirstLight can simply sit their plant idle, collecting ratepayer cash just for their “capacity” to potentially generate. With Northfield as its chief hydro asset, former owner GDF-Suez once told investors 40 percent of its annual profits had been realized through capacity fees.
Gus Bakas, FirstLight’s Massachusetts operations director, stated his goal for the 45-year-old plant is to someday see it running wholly on “green” power — solar and wind relayed to it from legions of regional rooftop panels and turbines. That would align with Massachusetts’ new Energy Storage Initiative, a 10-year effort purportedly aimed at saving ratepayers “hundreds of millions of dollars” while making the grid more reliable and reducing greenhouse gases. But wind runs strongest at night and is not plentiful in western New England, while all solar is generated by day. With Northfield Mountain’s peak-demand profit model based on sucking up bulk power and the river at night, something seems missing from the equation. Unless there are now plans to again run the river backward by day, when migrating fish are most vulnerable to entrainment.
FERC is charged with supplying reliable electricity at fair costs to the public, while fostering competition and protecting against energy monopolies. All licensing decisions from FERC must also comply with federal law, including conditions set under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. The operation of the Northfield Mountain station continues to prove a stumbling block to the successful execution of these federal acts and policies.
In the near term, for rare big-grid emergencies, a summer heat wave or winter cold snap, Northfield Mountain remains a credible backup tool. But Northfield otherwise continues today as an expensive, profoundly-damaging energy relay device whose net-loss operations chew apart a critical four-state artery daily. Given its violent year-round ecosystem impacts, its drag on federal trust and endangered species restoration programs — and the market’s current and emerging alternative energy storage solutions, FERC should not sanction Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station long term, as its dominant, de facto New England energy storage monopoly.