Commentary

Karl Meyer: ISO-New England, Northfield Mt. and an ecosystem on life support

This commentary is by Karl Meyer, a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. He will speak about the Connecticut River at Peskeomscut Park in Turners Falls, Massachusetts, as part of the free “Honoring the Land” events there on Saturday, Aug. 13, between 2 and 6 p.m.

On the globally warmed days of June 13, July 2 and July 19, 20, 24, 25 and 28, ISO-New England (the regional grid operator in Holyoke, Massachusetts) sent out emergency bulletins to corporate suppliers, prohibiting them from “shaving the peak” — selling excess, uncontracted energy into the electricity “spot market” to reap quick profits from bids outside the region. 

Secretive ISO loves touting its commitment to fair “pricing” and having an endless, ever-present energy “supply” on hand to serve the public. It contracts years ahead to maintain its fat margin of some 15% reserve energy above expected peak use. We never have to give climate or electric use a thought.

But recently ISO’s fat corporate-juice portfolio has been repeatedly tested. Its ever-overabundant supply — overwhelmingly of natural gas-produced electricity — was being consumed gluttonously. Did it alert the public of an energy squeeze, warn us to cut back? No. It has chosen to keep the public dulled to the overconsumption of its planet-scorching product. Warnings cut into profits of its corporate partners. What climate emergency? 

Unsurprisingly, it’s been another grim year for the Connecticut River. Drought and blistering heat have led to dismally low flows, and starved and suctioned channels. Passage for American shad at Holyoke Dam was just 190,000, its lowest point since 2010, when just 164,000 were lifted. 

Ironically, in that same 2010 season 36 miles upriver at the Turners Falls Dam, shad numbers skyrocketed 800% above decade averages — at that notoriously-poor fish passage site. For the first time in a decade — in which fish passage success at Turners Falls sank to less than 1% some years — American shad suddenly got the chance to access another 50 miles of the Connecticut’s wide-open, upstream spawning habitat stretching deep into Vermont and New Hampshire.

That’s a conundrum until understanding that in 2010, from May 1 to Nov. 9, the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station sat broken, idle and sanctioned by the EPA for massive Clean Water Act violations. FirstLight had regurgitated a mountain of its accumulated reservoir sludge into the Northfield station’s giant tunnels. Then it secretly dumped hundreds of truckloads of that effluent sludge directly into the river, for over 90 days.

Those idle six months in 2010 are the sole time in a half-century the 23-mile channel from Turners Falls to the dam in Vernon, Vermont, wasn’t subject to Northfield’s huge suck-and-surge depredation. The accidental experiment proved two things: 

  • Its daily disruption has direct, massive impacts on the aquatic life of the Connecticut River from Montague and Greenfield in Massachusetts all the way north to Bellows Falls, Vermont, and Charlestown, New Hampshire. 
  • Despite ISO-New England claims, Northfield’s unplanned, six-month mothballing proved its daily use is patently unnecessary for the day-to-day running of the ISO grid.

A dozen years later, and now five migration seasons after the federal operating license for Northfield expired in 2018, river conditions are wretched. Running afoul and unchallenged these 50 years in the face of age-old federal migratory fish passage law and clean water statutes, the Connecticut has never had an upright agency or true watchdog in its corner. 

FirstLight now adds the tag-word “hydro” after each mention of its pumped storage machine. But it’s really a gas-run contraption — fueled on the glut of natural gas proliferating on today’s grid.

Northfield has never produced a watt of its own virgin electricity. It’s a net-loss power consumer  ravaging a critical ecosystem artery purely for the weight of its water. Run like an electric toilet, it sucks at the grid and the river’s aquatic life in a buy-low/sell-high scheme, handsomely profiting its parent-owner, Canada’s venture capital giant Public Sector Pension Investments. Northfield pulls endless gulps of river backward and a mile uphill through deadly turbines into a 4 billion gallon reservoir. When demand peaks and prices are highest, it spits a denatured river down through those turbines — sending out secondhand exportable energy at premium profits.

Public Sector Pension Investments bought Northfield in 2016, seeking to run that energy resale model here in the U.S until 2072. That foreshadows the ultimate long, slow death for a crippled Connecticut River ecosystem. 

It was run for decades off the bloated wattage churned out by the long-closed Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. Now a gas guzzler, this July 25 it suctioned the river via 73% climate-crippling natural gas — far and away ISO-New England’s major grid fuel that day. On Aug. 1, 2022, it was running amok of this four-state river ecosystem on 69% natural gas, with another 23% imported nuclear. Like a Roadrunner cartoon gone wrong, Coyote’s dead-weight anvil is driven up on massive grid power. Here a living river gets sacrificed for a dead weight instead.

Northfield’s turbines feed off the river at 15,000 cubic feet per second, killing everything that vortex captures — from tiny fish eggs to full-size fish of 24 species. Imagine seven three-bedroom homes filled with aquatic life. Now picture them all obliterated simultaneously — seven sucked in per second, for hours on end.

Studies to ballpark Northfield’s annual turbine carnage have either failed or proven woefully inadequate. Its annual toll is conservatively believed in the hundreds of millions. A federal study estimated over 2 million juvenile American shad and 10 million eggs and larvae extinguished in a season. 

This direct-deadly machine has now operated in the heart of an ecosystem for a half-century, “decarbonizing” the Connecticut’s aquatic life since 1972. Northfield is not an energy storage solution. Licensing its continued suctioning of life from this region’s key planetary cooling artery will only compound its legacy of intergenerational environmental crimes.


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