Is FirstLight Power Resources attempting an end run around the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing process for its Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage station on the Connecticut River?
FirstLight’s parent owner, Canada’s Public Sector Pension Investments, is now offering up use of the giant power re-generation and transfer machine in a bidding process that won’t begin delivering electricity until 2023. The actual bidder is Deepwater Wind, in a partnership with British energy giant National Grid. One option included in their proposal is to relay clean, renewable wind power generated off Martha’s Vineyard, 125 miles across New England to be stored for peak-price regeneration back into the grid at Northfield. This offer is being floated despite the fact that NMPS won’t have a new FERC license requiring long-overdue river protections under federal and state environmental law until at least mid-2019.
For 46 years, Northfield Mountain has lived off the Connecticut River, its operations subsidized at public expense by the host of deadened aquatic life it chokes from a four-state ecosystem. Massachusetts officials are expected to choose among a handful of proposals for the future delivery of up to 1,600 future megawatts of “clean, renewable” wind power. But would an agreement that includes NMPS be legal and binding without a full vetting and understanding of those future license requirements for coming decades? Wouldn’t it be subject to litigation by the state and federal agencies now working on studies and agreements for that license? Is there any connection to this proposal with the all-but-secret Valentine’s Day visit by embattled (and now former) EPA chief Scott Pruitt and FERC Commissioner Neil Chatterjee with NMPS officials?
There’s great irony in this proposed “clean energy” marriage-of-convenience, given that NMPS sucks the Connecticut backward, aside and uphill at the ponderous rate of 15,000 cubic feet per second. Think 15,000 milk crates each second for hours at a time. Everything from tiny fish eggs to adult resident and migratory fish get sent on a two mile-long Northfield Mountain sleigh ride, twice through the turbines. The accepted term for everything drawn into that suction cone is “functionally extirpated.” Fancy words for “dead.”
In 2010, Northfield sat stilled and broken for over half a year – sanctioned by the EPA for gross violation of the Clean Water Act and its FERC operating license. The region’s electric grid held together just fine, while American shad passage success skyrocketed at the Turners Falls dam toward Vermont and New Hampshire. That migration run, profoundly impacted by NMPS operations, soared to 700 percent above the decade’s yearly averages.
Northfield’s extreme environmental downsides should render it an ineligible option for long-term wind power storage at this time. A half decade from now, new distributed electricity generation and state-of-the-art micro-grid storage options will be standard configurations for combating the security risks of bulk grid power storage and climate disruption in energy delivery. Unlike pumped storage, these options will feature the instantaneous, millisecond reaction and response times necessary to balance computer-age power glitches.
Northfield, a one-trick pony, has a bulk system designed long ago to profit from a buy-low/sell-high scheme by running off the cheap, overproduced megawatts cranked out by the now-closed Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. In 2016, in the midst of relicensing, Canada’s PSP Investments became NMPS’s third venture capital purchaser in just over a decade. Today, it runs on fossil fuel-produced electricity as it sucks massive gulps of the Connecticut into its 5-billion-gallon reservoir. A hike to that reservoir will illustrate what the stilled-water sound of a silent spring is.
Little was known about Northfield’s deadly future when its construction began in 1967, in tandem with Vermont’s only nuclear plant. Despite that black hole, this plant that can literally suck the Connecticut into reverse for a mile downstream under low flow conditions began operating just 10 miles from the Vermont/New Hampshire border in 1972. The Federal Power Commission granted it what became a license to kill at public expense – without a basic knowledge of its crippling impacts on shad and blueback herring under the 1965 Anadromous Fish Conservation Act or its role in imperiling the spawning success of the federally endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act.
When demand and prices are high, NMPS sends its deadened river water back downhill through the turbines again, cranking out a few hours of peak-priced, secondhand electricity in a final juicing of all it’s inhaled. Once its reservoir is emptied, NMPS itself is literally dead in the water, and must import new, virgin electricity to begin the process again. Northfield is an energy consumer and will never produce a single watt of its own power. The more often it runs the more river life it will kill into the future.
FirstLight/PSP Investments would do well to understand the giant electric appliance cannot be relicensed without stakeholders – from federal and state fisheries agencies to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission – ensuring a new license adheres to all federal and state environmental laws of the United States. Without a signed license, Bay State officials should leave this proposal on the table. There are other fish in the sea.
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.
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