In April, Massachusetts will take a big step toward meeting its energy responsibilities in the era of climate change. A company will be selected for the first phase of long-term production and delivery of 1,600 megawatts of clean, renewable, wind power. The three bidders all tout environmental benefits from constructing an offshore wind farm and the undersea cable necessary to deliver energy to coastal urban centers. Two bids specifically include state-of-the-art battery storage to be built nearer sites where wind electricity generated at night, when demand is less, will later be consumed. Deepwater Wind’s Revolution Wind proposal, however, includes “an optional feature” that uses an old-school energy storage technology that has plagued the Connecticut River for nearly half a century.
Deepwater’s proposal would send electricity generated off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard 125 miles across the Commonwealth and use it to pull massive slugs of water from the Connecticut River up into the 5 billion gallon mountaintop reservoir at the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station. Later, during times of peak demand, the water would be run a second time through reversing turbines inside the mountain, this time generating electricity to feed into the regional power grid.
Finished in 1972, the Northfield station was built to power-up on electricity from the now-closed Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. The 1,100 megawatt Northfield facility remains in service today, though it is largely powered by electricity generated by burning fossil fuels. It is owned by FirstLight Power Resources of Canada and backed financially by a venture capital firm called PCP Investments.
Deepwater now wants to link to this facility as its innovative “green” energy storage solution. Oddly, the 130-page proposal makes almost no mention of the sole water source for this energy relay/regeneration scheme—a 20-mile reach of the Connecticut River, the central artery of a four-state ecosystem.
Think of the Northfield station as a deadly, electric-powered appliance feeding off the Connecticut River. Impacts from its vacuum-and-flush operation include daily four-foot artificial tides and eroding riverbanks 122 miles from the sea. During periods of low river flow, its suction process can literally pull the river into reverse for up to a mile downstream. The facility also kills everything it vacuums up in the 2-mile round trip to its reservoir and back, wrung twice through those reversible turbines. That includes migratory and resident adult and juvenile fish, eggs, eels, aquatic plants, and animals.
Both Northfield and federal officials acknowledge this killing by the term “functional extirpation.” Peak pumping vacuums the river at 15,000 cubic feet per second for hours. Picture 15,000 milk crates sucked in per second. Now picture them with fish.
Northfield is a net energy consumer, meaning it takes 25 percent more electricity to pump water a mile uphill into its reservoir than the facility produces when it is generating electricity by releasing the water into the turbines on its trip downhill. Unlike conventional hydropower, Northfield will never produce a single watt of virgin electricity. After a violent, six-hour, generating flush of its 5 billion gallon reservoir, Northfield itself becomes a dead appliance. Its tank sits empty and useless until it again begins pulling megawatts from the grid to reverse its turbines and suck water up to the mountain reservoir.
Boyd Kynard, a retired federal migratory fish expert who literally wrote the book on the Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, experienced that reversing pull some three decades back on a fall fishing trip with his son. Drifting for bass near the French King Bridge, he suddenly found his aluminum boat was “moving upstream, at a pretty good clip.”
On January 18, 2018, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission turned down FirstLight’s temporary license amendment request to draw more river water. FERC’s denial centered on the Endangered Species Act and findings by the National Marine Fisheries Service related to potential impacts on the Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon. The rejection stated, “Project operations are currently being analyzed in the relicensing proceeding for the Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls projects, which will consider any affects to the shortnose sturgeon and will involve appropriate consultation.”
In its amendment request, FirstLight claimed Northfield’s expanded use was crucial to regional transmission operator ISO-New England’s grid reliability. But FERC rejected that argument as well, noting that “ISO-NE did not state that the additional storage capacity was crucial to reliability, but rather asserted generally that ISO-NE seeks to fully utilize the existing electric and fuel infrastructure, including storage capacity, in New England to assure reliable electric service.”
Ironically, FERC’s denial under the current license came just a month after Deepwater Wind submitted its offshore wind proposal to Massachusetts. The December 20, 2018, proposal included as an optional feature the pairing of the output of the Revolution Wind Project with the storage capacity of the Northfield facility.
Electricity generated from wind turbines spinning in the Atlantic would theoretically be dedicated to powering just one of four giant hydro turbines at the 1,100 megawatt Northfield re-generating facility. Deepwater’s proposal said two-thirds of average daily storage throughput at Northfield would remain unused, thus implying more of the facility’s storage capacity would be available for “green pairing” to other interested “distribution companies.” In point of fact, only a new federal operating license will determine how much storage will be made available at Northfield, and at what times it can be accessed. Of note also is that the proposal did not mention the hundreds of thousands of macerated, migratory fish affected by Northfield.
A landmark 1872 Supreme Court decision centered on the Holyoke Dam, 40 miles downstream of Northfield Mountain, ruled dam owners must provide passage for upstream running migratory fish. From time immemorial millions of fish have entered the mouth of the Connecticut each spring—an outsized proportion of them being migratory American shad that would spawn by the hundreds of thousands as far upstream as Bellows Falls, Vermont, 172 miles inland. Dams at Turners Falls (1798) and Holyoke (1849) ultimately killed their migrations into central New England. But with passage of the 1965 Anadromous Fish Conservation Act and the Congressionally-established federal/state Cooperative Fishery Restoration Program for the Connecticut River Basin in 1967, the stage was set for the return of those ancient and substantial New England fish runs to return.
Exactly a century after the Supreme Court’s Holyoke Company vs. Lyman decision, the height of Turners Falls Dam was increased to accommodate Northfield’s water appetite and enable it to be powered via the newly-licensed Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in 1972. The river thus became Northfield’s 20-mile-long watering trough, with vacuum and flush operations creating artificial tides from Turners Falls dam all the way upstream to the foot of the dam at Vernon, Vermont.
Each year now since 1975 fish elevators at Holyoke Dam have passed hundreds of thousands of migrating American shad upstream toward Vermont and New Hampshire. Studies show at least half of them arrive at Turners Falls and attempt to pass the dam there. Their success rate since 1999 has tottered between 1 and 10 percent. Disastrously, current licensing not only sanctioned Northfield to corral that huge basin of water—it also permitted Turners Falls dam operators to leave a 2-mile reach of the Connecticut’s riverbed below the dam virtually empty during winter months, while requiring just a minimal 400 cubic feet per second of water to be released into the riverbed during migration season when shad follow upstream flows.
Thus, that ancient natural chasm can either be starved of flow during migration season, or conversely pummeled by chaotic surges when Northfield is producing electricity. Three fish ladders were completed in 1980 at Turners Falls in accordance with the current license. All divert upstream migrating shad out of that beleaguered natural reach and lead them instead up into the adjacent Turners Falls power canal, where all but the luckiest few ever find their way up through confused currents to emerge beyond the dam.
New federal relicensing studies now show that as much as 10,000 cubic feet per second of water may be needed in that deadened reach to facilitate required successful upstream passage at the dam–and also to provide adequate flows to an ancient spawning pool there that’s critical to the recovery of the Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon. Another relicensing study proposed for this summer includes the ponderous notion of anchoring a massive, quarter-mile long Kevlar net in the river in front of Northfield to prevent some of the millions of tiny downstream-running juvenile shad from being sucked in on their journeys to the sea.
This Valentine’s Day–not a month after FERC rejected FirstLight’s temporary amendment, Scott Pruit, the EPA director and climate change skeptic, made a surprise visit to Northfield, arriving without public notice along with FERC Commissioner Neil Chatterjee. The duo praised Northfield’s grid-scale capacity, and afterward the EPA released a press release saying the agency “will continue to work with our partners in the states to make responsible use of our tremendous natural resources.” It made no mention of river impacts, erosion, shortnose sturgeon, or federal trust migratory fish.
PSP Investments announced its acquisition of Northfield in late February 2016—the third venture capital purchaser in just over a decade. A week later on March 4, 2016, Business Wire reported that ratings firm Fitch was revising FirstLight Hydro’s mortgage bonds, downgrading them from stable to negative at “BB-.” The reasons included outstanding debt and future energy market variability. Ironically, Deepwater’s December 2017 proposal concerning FirstLight stated under the heading credit issues, “there have been no current or recent credit issues/credit rating events regarding FirstLight or its affiliate entities raised by rating agencies, banks, or accounting firms.” The application also said, “The Storage Facility is an operating pumped storage hydro facility and requires no additional permits, consents, or approvals to offer the Storage Feature.” That, despite Northfield’s current FERC operating license set to expire just months away on April 30, 2018.
FERC has signaled it will leave the current Northfield license in force on a temporary basis, since important relicensing studies on migratory fish passage and protections have yet to be conducted, and mountains of data are still to be filed in the current, drawn-out process. Settlement discussions with stakeholders on major issues are now in the early stages. A new, signed license, including mandated conditions to protect New England’s great river and fish under federal and state endangered species, clean water, and environmental statutes, is thus unlikely to be in place before mid-2019.
April 23, 2018 is the Commonwealth’s deadline for choosing a long-term wind power supplier from among the three major bidders. Deepwater’s is the only proposal offering an add-on “option” for linking ocean winds to a long distance, river-scrambling, pumped storage scheme with a 2023 delivery date. Proposals from other bidders offer an earlier timeline, and include the integration of state-of-the-art battery storage that can be sited close to where energy will be consumed. Northfield is neither a necessary or smart option for the consumption, storage, and regeneration of distant, offshore wind power.
After decades of exploitation, abused and strangled ecosystems reach their survival limit. The Connecticut River has been at that limit for a long time. Wind is here today, and it presents a sensible climate solution for today’s energy generation. It’s a truly renewable resource, and should be paired with smart, state-of-the-art storage. New and emerging, job-creating energy storage options are available now—including batteries and compressed air storage. They require a relatively small footprint and can be located on brownfields. Their construction and operation creates new, long-term jobs, while contributing to an energy system whose reliability and resiliency will depend on distributed generation and localized micro-grids in the face of climate disruption.
Selecting Deepwater’s Northfield energy storage option should be a non-starter for the Commonwealth. Gambling on a distant, mega-storage contraption that has no signed, long-term license is not only ill-advised, it ignores its current impacts and dismisses the ongoing years of effort by federal and state agencies and local stakeholders working to safeguard the public trust in the current relicensing process. Don’t throw New England’s great river under the bus for a brute and backward-looking scheme.
Karl Meyer has been a stakeholder and member of the Fish and Aquatics Study Team in the current FERC relicensing process for the Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls projects since 2012. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.