Support and concerns about FirstLight’s application to increase winter pumping capacity

Last modified: 11/19/2015 8:56:59 AM
NORTHFIELD ­ ­— The independent system operator of the region’s electrical grid has written a letter of support on an application by Northfield Mountain hydroelectric project’s owners to boost its potential winter operation until its current federal license expires in 2018.

FirstLight Hydro Generating Co.’s application last month to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is similar to applications to amend the operating license for its 1,143-megawatt pumped storage project, that generates electricity by letting water from its mountaintop reservoir flow back to the Connecticut River through underground turbines. The same turbines also serve as pumps to bring river water to the 5-billion-gallon reservoir at times when the demand for energy, and thus the price, is lowest.

The difference this time is that the proposed amended operating conditions — allowing an additional 22 feet of pumping capacity to its reservoir — is being proposed for winter seasons for the duration of the 43-year-old plant’s operating license. A lengthy relicensing process with FERC is also under way.

ISO-New England, the Holyoke-based independent system operator of the region’s electric grid, wrote Thursday to FERC in support of the license amendment application, agreeing with FirstLight that the change would provide ISO-NE “with additional resources to address winter reliability needs, with no adverse impact.”

ISO-NE systems operation Vice President Peter Brandien wrote that the proposed change would address “a significant increase in the region’s demand for natural gas in recent years, such that, during cold winter periods, the region’s pipelines are at full, or near-full, capacity, restricting the amount of natural gas that can be delivered to generators through those pipelines.”

Brandien cited an updated natural gas study for the region by Fairfax, Va. consultants ICF International, which he said concluded that “winter peak day gas supplies will be barely adequate or slightly in deficit through 2020, as long as there are no major contingencies, such as an outage to gas supplies, loss of electrical sales to New England from the north due to extreme weather, or a nuclear unit tripping offline.”

ISO-New England “seeks to fully utilize the existing electric and fuel infrastructure, including storage capability, in New England to assure reliable electric service each winter,” the letter continues in explaining its support. “The additional flexible, quick-starting pumped hydro generation can help to address systems needs when fuel is scarce, and can serve as an additional operating reserve.”

FirstLight is applying to modify the reservoir’s upper and lower water surface elevation limits a total of 22 inches each year between Dec. 1 and March 31, increasing maximum daily generation from 8,475 to 10,645 megawatt-hours.

The increased operating flexibility of an expanded reservoir limit would not require any changes to the existing Northfield project, FirstLight says in its application, since the upper reservoir was constructed to accommodate the water elevation the company is seeking. There would also be no change in the hydraulic capacity of its pump-turbines and no change in Northfield Mountain’s maximum generating capacity or maximum pumping capacity and no change in the existing maximum and minimum elevation limits established for the 22-mile-long river stretching that serves as its lower reservoir.

FERC has approved similar amendments on a temporary basis to expand the mountaintop reservoir for parts of 2001, 2005, 2006 and for the winter of 2014-2015, although in the early requests, the changes were allowed only on the basis of ISO-NE issuing an alert of abnormal conditions on the power system.

Concerns raised

The Connecticut River Streambank Erosion Committee has raised concerns in the past about effects of changing the regimen for the hydro project, including possibly pulling more fish up through the system, as well as additional riverbank erosion.

According to a cover letter with the application, FirstLight’s analysis of water level fluctuations, flows, and pumping and generating levels last winter shows the changes “had minimal, if any, environmental impact. In fact, water elevation fluctuations, flows, and pumping and generating levels (then) ... were well within the fluctuations, flows, and pumping and generating levels under typical operating conditions.”

Committee member Tom Miner, a liaison with the Franklin Regional Planning Board, said some members are concerned that FirstLight will seek to make the change a part of its renewed license.

“We have no idea what they base that on,” Miner said. “We would much rather that this become something that’s used on an emergency basis rather than just expanding the capacity of the project for the benefit solely of the owner. We’re not objecting to have this emergency backup, but to make this part of the basic operating of the plant with no real compensation to the river is disturbing. They’re taking a public resource and using it for their corporate interests, but at some point you have to say there is a price to be paid to the river. And we haven’t seen that yet. This is one of the issues that’s going to come up in relicensing. “

John Howard, FirstLight Hydro’s director of FERC compliance, told The Recorder, “The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection have reviewed a draft of the application with no objections” and that there are no reports of any observed environmental effects due to modified project operations last winter.

Comments on the application to FERC may be filed through the end of October.

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You can reach Richie Davis at
or 413-772-0261, ext. 269


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