Profit and payback on New England’s river

  • KARL MEYER

Published: 7/31/2020 11:21:42 AM

Recorder readers may have been surprised to see pictures of FirstLight Power’s new CEO Alicia Barton and Board President Phil Giudice recently. Photos are nice. But their profiles may have left people with misconceptions — particularly about clean energy and describing the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station (NMPS) as a “zero emissions energy storage facility.” FirstLight’s commitments to the commonwealth and our four-state Connecticut River are questionable. On Dec. 20, 2018 they left us, re-registering all three facilities profiting off massive consumption of this river into a series of limited liability companies in Delaware.

FirstLight is largely a Canadian outfit, a subsidiary of the huge venture capital firm, PSP Investments. PSP arrived four years back to buy up the Northfield Mountain and the Turners Falls/Cabot hydro facilities from GDF Suez. And while they employ perhaps a hundred folks locally, the profits they mine from our river are largely exported to distant shareholders.

Readers should understand Northfield Mountain is a gas powered contraption, not a hydro-powered facility. It is a giant net-energy-loss operation. The massive amount of juice NMPS pulls from the grid daily is overwhelmingly generated from climate-burning natural gas — today’s main source of New England power. Grid operator ISO-New England, reported natural gas accounted for 48.5% of all energy consumed in the region in 2019, while nuclear dumped in 30.5% and hydro — mostly imported from Canada, chipped in 8.9%. At 2 p.m. this July 29, ISO-NE’s energy mix was 75% gas, 18% nuclear, 4% renewables, and 2% hydro–largely imported. And, while NMPS sucks life from the river at of the heart of the Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge, it’s never created a single watt of virgin electricity.

According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2019 NMPS consumed 1.114 billion Gross Kilowatt Hours of electricity while reproducing just 828 million GKHs. In 2018 NMPS consumed 1.205 billion GKH pumping the river uphill, but later returned only 907 million GKH of peak-priced power. Some years it consumes a full third more juice than it regurgitates.

This is a river-killing water storage and relay contraption, suctioning hours-long loops of water and fish from an ecosystem. Northfield sucks the river at rates up to 15,000 cubic feet per second to their 4 billion gallon reservoir. That 15,000 cfs amounts to gulping in a seven-bedroom, eight-bathroom mansion filled with aquatic life, every second. Picture one instantly imploded — all fish, eggs, animals and insects killed on a twice-through Northfield sleigh ride. Now, picture 60 per minute, 600 every 10 minutes — 3,600 mansions vaporized an hour — for hours on end.

Meanwhile, FirstLight’s traditional hydro-power operations 5 miles downstream at Turners Falls reported producing 316 million Gross Kilowatt Hours in 2018. In 2019 those same operations totaled 357 million GKHs. A little math shows that the 398 million GKH Northfield-created pumping deficit in 2018 erased nearly all 316 million GKH of the actual hydropower produced at Turners Falls. In 2019, Northfield’s deficit of 286 million GKHs erased a full 75% percent of all its downstream hydro contributions — negating all but a mere 71 million GKH of the total 357 produced.

FirstLight brags it can power a million homes for several hours, but never states in doing so it’s already burned through the energy for over 1,250,000 million homes. That math may work to cover the occasional grid slump or extremely rare blackout (what Northfield was originally designed for), but its continued daily use is grim news for the climate, the ecosystem; and river. After dumping out their few hours of electricity each day, NMPS is literally dead. De-watered, it must begin that massive juice and river consumption all over.

Studies on American shad show tens of millions of eggs and larvae are vaporized by Northfield annually, and add to that the outright loss of over 2 million juvenile shad sucked up on migrations back to the ocean. Five migratory species are subjected to NMPS. In total, 24 species — nearly all unstudied, live here. It’s doubtful any proposed 1000 foot barrier net strung across its giant, subsurface mouth will effectively protect fish — or the rest of a river’s aquatic life from its year-round carnage.

Northfield is now operating on an extended 50-year old FERC license. The original expired April 30, 2018. FirstLight, of Delaware and Canada, continues its profitting — while seeming in no hurry to complete a FERC relicensing process now dragging into its ninth year. It’s time to pony up. Time to stop killing fish and starving an ecosystem. By law, hundreds of thousands of fish are entitled to a new fish lift at Turners Falls and safe passage at NMPS annually. And no years-in-the-future corporate promise of pairing grim river pumped storage with ocean turbines 150 miles away will ever make those net-loss megawatts “clean” or “renewable.” They’re just patently miserable.

Karl Meyer lives in Greenfield. He’s been a member of the Fish and Aquatics Study Team in the FERC relicensing for Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls projects since 2012. Meyer is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.


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