My Turn: Northfield Mountain an asset in fight against Climate Change

  • Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project upper reservoir. FILE PHOTO

Published: 4/23/2021 6:38:01 AM

This Earth Week, let’s take stock of the climate change solutions that Massachusetts will need as it embarks on a nation-leading commitment to be carbon-neutral by 2050. The recently enacted climate law sets ambitious goals to decarbonize the state’s electricity supply by deploying vast amounts of renewable resources like solar and wind, and the corresponding energy storage capacity is needed to balance out these intermittent resources. As the largest clean power producer in New England, FirstLight knows how important this effort will be to preserving the future of our state.

Unlike many states committed to addressing climate change, Massachusetts’ efforts retain a significant advantage due to the existence of the two largest sources of energy storage in all of New England: Northfield Mountain and Bear Swamp. Pumped hydro storage is not like traditional power generation — it is in fact the largest and most flexible form of energy storage in existence. It is designed to store off-peak electricity and inject it back into the grid when we need it most, typically during late afternoons when solar power begins to ramp down as the sun is setting.

According to the U.S. DOE’s Hydropower Vision report, pumped storage is more flexible, has longer facility lifetimes, and has lower operating costs than other technologies, concluding that pumped storage projects will help realize the untapped renewable resource potential in America and represents an important part of our nation’s clean energy future. Similarly, the state of California, widely recognized as a global leader in deploying clean energy, has recently called for the development of thousands of megawatts of new pumped storage as a critical element of meeting their goals under the state’s seminal climate change law.

Closer to home, researchers at UMass Lowell concluded that as the region looks to scale up our efforts to deploy the nation’s first offshore wind farms, pumped storage will need to be leveraged to its greatest impact. The report highlights that “[t]he massive untapped potential of pumped hydro facilities for storing and moderating the intermittent nature of renewable electricity needs to be recognized as it offers over four times the capacity and discharge over two times the duration of standard [battery] systems.”

Recently, there have been several opinion pieces featured in local papers that have perpetuated some misconceptions of Northfield Mountain, which are based on outdated information and old perceptions of the project. Although it is true that Northfield was originally designed to capture excess nuclear power during off-peak periods and reinject that power into the grid during peak periods, these resources are now ideally suited to capture excess offshore wind in the same manner. The concept is the same, only this application would help avoid curtailments of wind generation when the wind is blowing but the excess electricity isn’t needed. Instead of wasting that renewable energy, we can store it and then reinject it into the system when we need it most.

Commenters have raised their concerns about the environmental impact of the facility in the context of our application for a new federal operating license, a process known as relicensing. For nearly a decade, we have engaged in this process to secure a new set of operating conditions that will protect the environment. In coordination with our stakeholders, we have conducted more than 40 different studies to assess environmental impact, recreational opportunities, and possible impacts to the region’s heritage.

In December 2020, we filed our formal application, committing to $130 million worth of new investments to restore fish passage beyond the Turners Falls dam, eliminate the entrainment of fish into the Northfield Mountain upper pond, improve recreational opportunities, and better support our host communities. While this won’t happen overnight, the improvements will ensure that Northfield Mountain continues to provide incredible value to the commonwealth by addressing climate change while simultaneously investing in the future of our communities.

FirstLight’s assets have been supplying clean, affordable power to New England homes and businesses for decades, but perhaps now more than ever these facilities are ideally positioned to play a leading role in Massachusetts clean energy future. Our assets also employ local union labor and provide millions of dollars in local economic benefits. Let’s recognize and embrace the real climate action already taking place right in our own backyards and look to an even brighter, more sustainable future ahead.

Alicia Barton is the CEO of FirstLight and the former CEO of Mass CEC and NYSERDA.




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