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Meyer/My Turn: Disturbing change of course

Vermont Yankee, the last of the region’s nuclear plants, will close in December. In response, GDF-Suez FirstLight’s Nortfield Mountain Pumped Storage plant is looking to change its stripes.

On June 27, it applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a “temporary” license amendment to allow it broad new freedoms to consume unprecedented amounts of the Connecticut River from Dec. 1, 2014 through March 31, 2015. That plan would add an additional 22 feet of pumping capacity to 5 billion-gallon reservoir, sucked directly from the river. More pumping is certain to create more riverbank erosion and draw more silt into that reservoir. It will also kill untold thousands of the public’s resident river fish.

The unprecedented request defies logic. Northfield was built specifically to use energy from local nuclear plants to push water up to its reservoir. In its request, FirstLight also cited the closing of the 330-megawatt Salem Harbor coal plant as rationale for why it should be allowed to pump more, and grow larger. FirstLight Hydro Compliance Director John Howard stated, “The requested increase in operational flexibility is needed to provide ISO-New England with additional resources to deal with a potential shortage of energy in the Northeast this winter.”

However, Andrea Donlon of the Connecticut River Watershed Council found that ISO-New England, the grid’s Independent System Operator, had made no requests concerning Northfield, stating it expected to have adequate energy supply this winter.

What FirstLight’s application failed to mention is that it is shutting down its own 135-megawatt Mount Tom coal plant this October. Rather than the “peaking energy” and “emergency resource” plant it’s been since coming on-line in 1972, Northfield seems to be implying it will somehow serve as a replacement for those around-the-clock “baseload” energy plants.

The other logic-defying reality is that it would be consuming more baseload energy to create more brief pulses of high-priced energy to re-sell to us at “spot” market prices.

Northfield was fashioned during the nuclear build-out in the late 1960s to use the excess power generated at night from nuclear plants in Rowe, Vernon, Vt., and Haddam, Conn., to gulp giant slugs of the Connecticut up to its reservoir. When demand “peaked” during mornings or late afternoons it would release that stored nuclear energy — our river, back to its bed through massive turbines. It could produce some 1,000 megawatts in just minutes, great for short-term needs and emergencies. But it could only store enough water to produce six to eight hours of electricity, total. Depleted, it then waited to re-start the process.

In her book “Inventing Niagara” Ginger Strand described the inefficiencies and rationale behind selling pumped storage electricity to the public as a textbook case of corporate capitalism: buy low, sell high. Northfield has never been a renewable hydro source. It is inefficient and operates at a net-energy loss. While its impacts on the river ecosystem are profound, its brief, staggering pulses of violent, high-volume output are no more efficient than that of legacy electric producers, just more short-term profitable.

Northfield only makes sense while it operates as a designated nuclear adjunct, run on the excesses of the region’s short-lived and now-shuttered nuclear fleet. But now it wants to soldier on, utilizing imported power and climate-changing resources. Meanwhile the river pays an as-yet unstudied price — as the public is asked to accept yet more “peak” energy, repackaged and re-sold at “peak” prices culled from bidding boards on the “spot” market.

FirstLight’s FERC request sparked official replies from entities involved in the current 5-year relicensing of Northfield. The National Marine Fisheries Service’s William McDavitt noted to John Howard “the timing of this temporary amendment application is a bit unfortunate as the proposed change could bear some impact on proposed 3.1.2 Northfield Mountain/Turners Falls Operations Impact on Existing Erosion and Potential Bank Instability. Were the proposed changes to go into effect, it seems as though the duration that NMPS pumps or generates could be changed.”

Massachusetts Fish and Wildlife made no objections to the up-rate, but the Watershed Council noted that fish kills there — known as “entrainment” — are worrisome. “Currently the entrainment impact of the NMPS facility during the winter is not well understood, which the pending appeal by USFWS regarding the sufficiency of FirstLight’s proposed entrainment study well illustrates,” the council said, further noting, “So until such time as we have a much better understanding of the entrainment impacts of NMPS, it seems inappropriate to request additional pumping capacity.”

In 1995, the owners of the Ludington (Mich.) Pumped Storage Plant agreed to a $172 million settlement for its killing of the public’s fish across the previous two decades. There, according to the Ludington Daily News, they at least had the benefit of one-time study showing LPSP “in a single year, killed 440,000 salmon and trout, 85,000 perch and millions of forage fish that served as food for valuable game.”

Since 1972, it’s been a free ride up at Northfield.

Karl Meyer is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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