My Turn: Don’t take FirstLight for granted

Published: 5/3/2022 11:04:56 AM
Modified: 5/3/2022 11:03:24 AM

In a Recorder Earth Day press release, CEO Alicia Barton touted the success and generosity of FirstLight’s environmental grant promotion in local schools. Students from Franklin County Tech used a $1,000 “Valley Climate Champions” grant to build an outdoor pizza oven and study energy use. What student wouldn’t enjoy that?

But it left me wondering how much students understand of the history, financing and energy consumption of FirstLight’s nearby Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station. Parent-owned by Canadian venture capital giant Public Sector Pension Investments, it’s just three miles upstream of the school.

In that vein I’ve have some potential questions and topics for future studies regarding their Northfield Mountain neighbor. Why not investigate its impacts on the Connecticut River, sitting just 300 yards from the schoolyard? Its intake suction, at 15,000 cubic feet per second, causes the river to run in reverse for at least three miles under conditions common in its yearly cycle — from their school site back under the French King Bridge, past French King Rock, and all the way to the Riverview picnic site.

Are students aware Northfield has never produced a watt of virgin electricity? It’s a net-power-loss machine — consuming massive amounts of grid kilowatts to pull the Connecticut backward and uphill.In doing so, it squanders a third more energy than it later returns to the power lines at peak-prices. Students could study flows and that nearby riverbank failure on Millers Falls Road a few years back. What hydraulic pressures working in the river there? Montague paid for those costly repairs.

Why not explore Northfield’s carbon footprint? Sixty percent of the New England power grid is charging-up on climate scorching “natural” gas. NMPS’s contribution to global warming must be huge since original energy source — excess megawatts from the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, went dark in 2014. This gas-reliant machine might be the Valley’s biggest climate killer.

A 2017 report by the US Fish & Wildlife Service and MA Fish & Wildlife estimated of 2.5 million juvenile American shad and over 10 million shad eggs and larvae were being extinguished annually by Northfield’s turbines, thanks to its 20 miles of river impacts and suction. Two dozen fish species are exposed to the pull of its intake. Could students estimate Northfield’s annual total carnage?

Regarding math and history, Canada’s PSP Investments purchased NMPS in 2016 — two years before its 50-year-old federal operating license expired on April 30, 2018. They bought NMPS, Turners Falls hydro projects and a handful of smaller Connecticut “assets” for $1.2 billion — reportedly $600 billion less than GDF-Suez paid for those same facilities earlier that decade. In December 2018, eight months after Northfield’s operating license expired (but was extended by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission), PSP/FirstLight re-registered Northfield out of Massachusetts and Franklin County into a limited liability tax shelter in Delaware. In 2019 FirstLight attorneys browbeat Montague into paying the corporation back money — for what they contended were years of over-assessed taxes to the tune of $789,000.00. Meanwhile FirstLight’s annual state tax payments were reported as a paltry $100,000, while they spent big bucks lobbying at the State House for financial breaks to be subsidized by ratepayers.

A math conundrum: FirstLight boasts it will spend $130 million in legally-mandated fish passage and river mitigation measures over what they hope will be new 50 year license. In a 2019 filing FL reported returns of $158 million in Northfield sales for the year. Doing some hypothetical math, if your chief cash producer, Northfield, was fully paid for as part of that $1.2 billion buyout in 2016, how many years at $158 million will it take to get your full return on investment; and then pure profit? A hint: they’re entering their seventh year, operating under a 2018 license — and haven’t made a single new investment on federal requirements for fish passage at Northfield and Turners Falls Dam, nor returned flows to the downstream riverbed.

Recently Alicia Barton announced FirstLight has pitched in as part of a small consortium investing a total of $645 million in New York offshore wind development — targeted for New York and New Jersey. While an 1872 U.S. Supreme Court ruling made it law here that all migratory fish must safely pass dams and facilities operating on the Connecticut — and all U.S. rivers. We’re still awaiting those mandated protections and that legal seafood here. Today’s students should be baking fresh, local American shad on outdoor grills. Their 50 year futures should not include sacrificing a living river system to store a few hours of venture capital electricity.

Karl Meyer lives in Greenfield. He’s been a stakeholder, intervener and a Fish and Aquatics Studies Team volunteer in the Northfield Mountain FERC licensing process since 2012. Meyer is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.


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