My Turn: FERC is failing New England’s Great River

  • The closed Schell Bridge linking East and West Northfield over the Connecticut River. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Published: 1/26/2023 5:10:05 PM
Modified: 1/26/2023 5:09:39 PM

On Jan. 12, 2023, Vince Yearick, director of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) Division of Hydropower Licensing, gave a new fat gift to FirstLight Power for its Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station in Massachusetts. Parent-owned by Canadian venture capital giant PSP Investments, his decision allows First Light to continue its deadly, flow-reversing suction of the Connecticut River without completing an endlessly-late settlement agreement with federal and state agencies on a new license. Its first license expired in 2018, just months before FirstLight re-registered Northfield into a Delaware tax shelter. Yearick gifted them five more months to drag out that license bid while continuing to plow Massachusetts-based profits into big venture capital deals in New York, Pennsylvania and beyond.

Largely misunderstood, Northfield has nothing in common with traditional hydro. This is a grid parasite, run off the massive, fossil-fueled megawatts it pulls off ISO-New England’s grid daily to reproduce a few hours of peak-price electricity. That grid gorging allows reversing turbines to suction up the Connecticut in continuous 15,000 cubic feet per second slurps — swallowing the equivalent of seven, 3-bedroom homes filled with aquatic life each second, for hours. Northfield kills everything it sucks in — hundreds of millions of eggs, larvae, juvenile and adult fish perish there annually.

It’s brutality that turned a once-living Connecticut into the hellish, reversed knot it is in Massachusetts today. It literally pulls this four-state ecosystem’s central artery apart like a piece of cheap taffy. It’s other-worldly suction erases the Connecticut’s natural functions — wrenching it to a dead stop; then literally reversing its current for over three miles at times. Hollow river designations as a “National Blueway” and central artery of the sprawling Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge are extinguished here daily.

Northfield’s buy-low/sell-high profit model binges on the river at night when grid prices are lowest. Its vortex ultimately yanks the deadened water a mile uphill to the 4-billion-gallon reservoir. By design this net-loss machine reproduces up to one third less energy than it consumes. It’s denatured bulk later gets flushed back through turbines in pulses of twice-produced, peak-price power. It’s second-hand electricity is patently unnecessary as daily grid output. Ample pooled supplies of virgin energy are available without wedging Northfield’s river-killing waste into the mix.

Every year Northfield runs without changes or expense — natural flow restoration, fish ladder construction or remediation in a four-state ecosystem is a cash bonanza for Canadian investors, managers, consultants and traders … at public expense.

On Jan. 10, 2023, I entered a new Motion to Intervene with FERC, citing their Out-of-Time designation in First Light’s unending failures to meet federal filing obligations. Begun in 2012, this has become the mother of all Groundhog Days in venture-capital theater. FERC has acted merely as its pass-through agency, while shareholders rejoice. Just 48 hours after my filing Yearick decreed they could continue profiting from a license issued in 1968.

FirstLight touts Northfield as benign and green — as “New England’s clean battery.” Not even close. They don’t mention deadly river and grid gorging. Meanwhile, the backbone of New England’s Great River is broken and pulled apart daily. It’s endless killing that’s been quietly grandfathered along by ISO-New England and FERC — overwhelmingly for its extremely sporadic use in brief emergency deployments during grid slumps, or two decades back in a 2002 blackout. The megawatts wasted annually by Northfield to reproduce net-loss resale power for export could run a handful of Valley small cities and towns for a year.

FERC’s new delay surely brought smiles to Canadian investors. Instead of regulation, they have nearly a new half-year to slow-dance their bid to negotiate a settlement with federal and state environmental agencies. Those agencies, along with absent NGOs, endlessly abandoned a living Connecticut here — a gross dereliction of duty for a contraption they should have relegated to emergency use decades ago. Its brutality continues, unchallenged and unencumbered by landmark federal and state laws protecting U.S. rivers, flows, fish and wetlands — some dating to the 19th century. During last summer’s critical drought Northfield had leave to do its massive suctioning while hardly a dribble entered the river through withered tributaries — extracting basin flow at 15,000 cubic feet per second, 10 times the parched 1,520 cubic feet of water entering it.

FirstLight’s new ‘deadline’ is May 31, 2023. It assures Northfield’s lethal suck-and-spit operations will continue, unchanged, through the 2024 fish migration season. Far worse: As things now stand in published FERC filings, its lethal impacts and reversals appear on course to continue, largely unabated, for decades.

Living rivers don’t flow backwards; they don’t falter and stop. They don’t consume their young. Northfield Mountain is the most lethal machine ever operated on the Connecticut. It remains in play due to Massachusetts’s endless energy appetite for new data-mining, crypto, online betting, streaming, casinos, cannabis grow houses, etc. 

FirstLight is today pitching Northfield’s massive use as part of some “clean battery” future. What’s not stated is that it will predominately be used as a crutch to power energy-hungry coastal cities. They hope to run it off ocean-produced wind megawatts ferried here from 250 miles away to suck the life from our river. They’ll later regenerate grim resale megawatts to export back to the coastal metropolis at peak times and profits. If relegated to that future Northfield will forever remain our capital crime against an ecosystem, New England’s Great River, and a living planet.

Karl Meyer has been a stakeholder, intervenor and member of the Fish and Aquatics Studies Team in the federal relicensing bid for Northfield Mountain since 2012. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. Meyer lives in Greenfield.


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