FirstLight requests re-licensing change

  • The intake/outflow of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Facilty using water from the Connecticut River.  STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • The Connecticut River below the dam in Turners Falls can be utilized for white-water sports with controlled releases from the dam. The river can run low at times in this stretch with most of the water diverted into the canal to generate power. Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer 
Published: 1/10/2019 8:12:39 PM

More than five years into its federal relicensing process, FirstLight Hydro Generating Co. is seeking to shuffle its Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls projects into two separate holding companies.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has been overseeing the consolidated license for both Connecticut River projects, posted notice Tuesday of FirstLight’s application to make Northfield Mountain LLC the applicant for the 1,168-megawatt pumped-storage project’s operating license. The process by FERC — which remains operational despite the federal government shutdown — sets a Feb. 8 deadline for comments, protests and interventions to be posted.

FirstLight Hydro’s Dec. 20 application to FERC seeks to also transfer its Turners Falls and Cabot Station operations — with a combined generation of 68 megawatts — to a new affiliate, FirstLight MA Hydo LLC, and to transfer both new project owners as applicants for relicensing that was officially applied for in April 2016. The current 40-year-license, which expired last April 30, has been extended.

The company seeks an expedited process that would grant approval by March 31.

FirstLight spokesman Leonard Green said in a statement, “We are simply trying to align the projects by the type of service they provide. We envision Northfield Mountain to be part of a FirstLight storage company,” while the two Turners Falls hydro plants would remain in a “conventional hydro company” along with its Housatonic and Scotland projects in Connecticut. “There are no plans to sell any of the assets. The projects already operate under two different FERC licenses, so this will not impact the re-licensing effort in a meaningful way. ... Since this has no impact on re-licensing, we are requesting this change now.”

But while FirstLight downplays connections between the proposal and the relicensing, timing is key, suggest those who have been working on or closely observing the multiyear federal process.

“If they segregate the two, it’s purely a transaction for them. They’re trying to protect their big cash cow, the pumped storage project,” guesses Franklin Regional Planning Board member Thomas Miner, who’s followed the hydro project relicensing issue for years.

Federal and state fisheries and wildlife agencies want more flows to protect endangered species like shortnose sturgeon below the dam, Miner notes, while American Whitewater and Appalachian Mountain Club have what he calls “a very ambitious plan to make this a premiere whitewater boating opportunity.”

The nonprofit recreational groups have been advocating for that, Miner suggests, while the government agencies “have a statutory right to require these things. Which, I’m sure, is what concerns FirstLight and its many different guises the most.”

In closed-door settlement negotiations among all those groups — which Miner has not been party to — “everybody’s supposed to be putting their cards on the table. That’s got to be scary to the bean-counters.”

Allowing more flow into what is now essentially a dry river below the dam would be lost revenue for the dam’s owner, while Northfield Mountain — designed 50 years ago as a “peak-load” generator for the electric grid — is a very valuable asset, able to boost the power supply as it goes from standby to 1,143 megawatts in six to eight minutes. The December filing by the plants’ owner, which has been meeting for months in closed settlement agreement sessions with a group of governmental and state agencies and environmental organizations, caught at least some of those by surprise.

“We were taken by surprise,” said Kimberly Noake MacPhee, a Franklin Regional Council of Governments planner. “In the beginning, FECR said it wanted to re-license all five projects together, concurrently, so the facilities can be operated and permitted as a system. That makes sense on a river, where one project affects the others, so it’s concerning there’d be separate licenses.”

She said she expects the affected towns would be among those responding to the FERC notice.

“There was no indication. I had no idea,” said Andrea Donlon, river steward for the Connecticut River Conservancy, who has been party to those talks and has worked on getting erosion, fisheries and water quality issues resolved as part of the relicensing process.

The Greenfield-based environmental nonprofit plans to intervene in the process over concerns that the two hydro operations should not be separated.

“Turners Falls and Northfield are so interdependent, I would be really concerned if they tried to have them under truly separate ownership,” she said. The 20-mile impoundment area between the Turners Falls and Vernon dams constitutes the “lower reservoir” of the pumped-storage project, which produces power by pumping river water to a mountaintop reservoir and releasing it through underground generators back to the river.

The possibility of FERC expediting the process leaves Miner and some others concerned, with the agency’s 30-day clock now ticking, despite an ongoing government shutdown that affects the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Donlon said she is unclear on what FirstLight’s motivation actually is in filing for the changes, except to remove itself from financial liability from the terms of any new license, which could be years from completion.

“What the heck is this? I don’t know,” she said.

She said a separate Dec.21 petition to FERC on tariffs shows how deep this river story runs.

It says Northfield Mountain, which intends to operate as an “exempt wholesale generator” is:

“a wholly-owned direct subsidiary of NFM Holdings LLC, which, in turn, is a wholly-owned direct subsidiary of NFM Intermediate Holdings LLC. NFM Intermediate Holdings LLC is a wholly-owned direct subsidiary of NFM Parent LLC, which, in turn, is a wholly-owned direct subsidiary of FirstLight Hydro. FirstLight Hydro is a wholly-owned direct subsidiary of FirstLight Power Inc., which ... is a wholly-owned direct subsidiary of PSP FL USA LLC … which is ultimately owned and controlled by Public Sector Pension Investment Board (PSP), a Canadian Crown corporation created by an act of the Canadian Parliament, with a share capital issued to the President of the Treasury Board of Canada to be held on behalf of Her Majesty in right of Canada.”

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