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Northfield power facility looks to expand

NORTHFIELD – FirstLight Power Resources, owner of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, is considering expanding generating capacity at the plant and utilizing unused water-storage capacity in the project’s upper reservoir as it begins a five-year long relicensing process with the federal government.

The relicensing process with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission also includes the Turners Falls Hydroelectric Project, also owned by Connecticut-based FirstLight.

At Turners Falls, the company will consider upgrading Station No. 1, which was built in 1905, or closing that historic station and installing similar hydroelectric generating capacity at the project’s nearby Cabot Generating Station, which was built in 1916 and is larger.

“These are all things we have to look at as possibilities,” said John S. Howard, plant manager for FirstLight, during a meeting with reporters on Wednesday. “We have to look at all these projects and see what makes sense.”

Northfield provides stability and capacity to New England’s power grid by using electricity at night, when use is low and rates are cheap, to pump water from the Connecticut River to the upper reservoir atop Northfield Mountain. Then, during the day when power is needed, the Northfield station reverses course and lets that stored water flow back down through its turbines to generate electricity.

Howard said the upper reservoir was built with excess water capacity that FirstLight is unable to use under its current license.

Howard said the upper reservoir was built bigger so it could help send Connecticut River water to the Quabbin Reservoir and the metropolitan Boston water system in case of drought. But the connection to the Quabbin was never built, Howard said.

“Could we make use of that capacity?” he said. “It is something we are considering.”

This is the first time the Northfield Mountain Project has gone through a relicensing process since commercial power generating started there in 1972. The Turners Falls project was grandfathered into the federal regulations, said Mark J. Wamser, a water resources engineer with the firm Gomez and Sullivan in New Hampshire who has been hired by FirstLight.

Andrew C. Fisk, executive director of the Connecticut Watershed Council in Greenfield, said the relicensing process represents a rare chance to think about what a long stretch of the river will look like for a very long time.

The federal government is doing First Light’s licenses at the same time as ones for three dams upriver owned by TransCanada: Vernon, Bellows Falls and Wilder.

“It’s very important that the entire public chime in,” Fisk said. “Whether they want to see more recreational opportunities or they want to see more opportunities for the critters, let’s talk.”

The Council supports hydropower. Fisk said he’d be open to Firstlight using more of the Northfield upper reservoir provided that the ecosystem along the banks of the Connecticut and fish habitat in the water are protected. “Now is the time to talk about all the scenarios,” Fisk said.

Northfield discharges water back into the river leading to wide fluctuations in the level of water in the river. This can lead to erosion and problems for fish.
Federal licenses for the projects expire in 2018. New licenses might last 30 or 40 years after that.

First Light has a website detailing the process and the project at www.northfieldrelicensing.com.

FirstLight has already notified more than 100 governments, native tribes and other agencies of the relicensing process. That list includes Trout Unlimited, the Watershed Council and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.

Fisk said Northfield today functions largely to store power from the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, Vt. But in the future it might serve to store power from renewable sources like wind.

“There is a growing interest in these pump storage facilities around the country that are tied to green power,” he said. “They might serve as batteries for wind.”

As it stands now, the Northfield project has a generating capacity of 1,119.2 megawatts. The more traditional hydroelectric stations in Turners Falls have a capacity to generate 67.7 megawatts.

Taken together, that is be enough power for about 1 million average homes.

By contrast, the Mt. Tom coal plant in Holyoke, also owned by FirstLight, has the capacity to generate enough power for about 100,000 average suburban homes.

Howard said it is too early to tell what any physical changes to the Turners Falls or Northfield plants would do for the power capacity. The Northfield and Turners projects together have 68 employees, Howard said.

Howard said Firstlight already upgraded two of the four turbines at Northfield from 270 megawatts to 292 megawatts over the past few years. The company has plans to expand the remaining two turbines over the next few years while relicensing is ongoing.