My Turn: Local hydro facilities can, and should, transition to renewable energy


Published: 3/15/2018 9:00:26 AM

On Feb. 16, the Greenfield Recorder reported that Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Commissioner Neil Chatterjee came to our area and visited two hydro facilities in our area: the Cabot Station in Turners Falls and the Northfield Mountain Pump Storage facility.

Greening Greenfield, a group of concerned citizens working toward sustainability, was outraged that they called them both “renewable energy systems.” Additionally, we were upset that they chose to meet only with FirstLight, the owners of these two facilities, and did not also meet with local municipal officials and environmental groups who have lived with and studied these facilities, and who have been working with FERC and FirstLight for the past five years on their dam relicensing process.

Since Greening Greenfield members are advocates of locally produced renewable energy that create jobs while improving the health of our planet, we sent a letter to the EPA Administrator and FERC Commissioner requesting that EPA and FERC work with us to turn these projects into shining examples of how we can grow the economy and protect our planet by building, and using, renewable-energy systems that are as environmentally friendly as possible, which will help us all get off of fossil fuels and nuclear power, and transition to 100 percent renewable energy.

We also copied that letter to FirstLight executives, state energy officials at the DEP and Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs; our state and federal representatives and members of congress; and local environmental groups.

In the letter we explained why we were outraged and asked for their help. We made the following two points.

The Northfield Mountain Pump Storage facility is not a renewable energy project at this time, but could be an important renewable energy enabler.

Both facilities are flawed and should not be held up as examples of successful renewable energy projects.

As for the Cabot Station, we recommended that they build a system that enables fish to get past the dam, and that river levels be maintained to support the fish and other critters in the river.

The Northfield Pump Storage system is more complicated. We explained that we understand the importance of this energy storage system for load leveling, which will enable renewables to become a major source of our electricity, and that we understand that pumped water storage systems are the least expensive type of large-scale energy storage systems.

How a pumped storage system works, is that when there is excess energy, water is pumped from a low-lying reservoir to an upper reservoir. Then, when there is not enough electricity to meet demand, water is released and electricity is generated. To increase the use of wind and solar, which deliver energy intermittently, this system is critically important in keeping our electricity constant and smooth.

We made the recommendation that the Northfield Mountain system 1) needs to be upgraded to be a closed-loop system, and 2) renewable energy must be used to pump water to the upper reservoir

Why a closed-loop system? We pointed out that using the Connecticut River as the “lower reservoir” is not acceptable. The Northfield Mountain project has wreaked havoc as follows:

Each time water is pumped to the upper reservoir, the fish and other critters are killed as they pass through the turbines. Releasing water for electricity generation, often daily, has had devastating effects, including unacceptable erosion to that section of the river. The combined pumping and releasing of water causes the river level to fluctuate wildly, which disrupts the ecosystem of that section of the river.

Why must renewable energy be used for pumping? Today, this facility cannot be called a renewable energy facility because it uses fossil fuels to pump the water to the upper reservoir. This is not acceptable. Because some energy is always lost with any energy storage system, more fossil-fuel-generated electricity is used for pumping, than 0-carbon energy is generated by the hydro system. Therefore, this system is increasing, not decreasing, the use of fossil fuels.

We propose the following to transform Northfield Mountain into a valuable asset:

Require FirstLight to build a lower reservoir that is independent of the river, thereby creating a closed-loop system. This would resolve the well-documented problems of habitat disruption including fish and other river-critter mortality, river fluctuation and the erosion issues. Since a majority of the pumped storage systems worldwide are designed as closed-loop systems, it is time for FERC to require a thorough analysis of the feasibility of making Northfield Mountain a closed-loop system. Require FirstLight to use only renewably-produced electricity to pump water up to the upper reservoir. This is a requirement of a Nevada-based pumped-storage facility.

During the dam relicensing process, which is scheduled to be finalized within the next 18 months, Greening Greenfield urges you contact your federal and state representatives and let them know that you want our section of the Connecticut River improved and that you support renewable energy, and thank local officials and groups, such as the Connecticut River Conservancy, who are advocating for our river in the relicensing process.

Nancy Hazard is a member of Greening Greenfield and retired director of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA). She can be reached at​​​​​​


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