My Turn: A river held hostage to corporate greed

  • The view from the summit of Mt. Sugarloaf State Reservation of the Connecticut River Valley. PHOTO/CHELI MENNELLA

Published: 10/18/2021 12:28:31 PM

The worsening human-caused climate crisis coupled with our continuing draw down of the planet’s remaining stores of fossil fuels has created a positive feedback loop that, if left unchecked, will lead to the worst-case climate warming predictions contained in the latest IPCC report and an abrupt end to our fossil fuel dependent way of life.

We are entering the twilight of the petroleum age, and the decisions we make in the next few years will determine whether our transition to a post-petroleum world will be comparable to falling off a cliff or gliding to a softer landing. The need to transition rapidly away from fossil fuels to truly renewable energy sources and to greatly increase our energy conservation is the path forward to a softer landing, and is the paramount challenge of our time.

The success or failure of humanity’s ability to meet this challenge hinges not only on transitioning to clean energy sources as quickly as possible, but also on making sure that green solutions do not exacerbate the very problems they’re attempting to mitigate. This means clean, renewable energy sources need to be just that — clean and renewable — and should result in net energy gains when operational. It means not being taken in by false claims about non-renewable energy sources such as natural gas or wood biomass being clean energy sources not contributing to global warming.

It also means recognizing that energy derived from pumped hydro storage, such as the Northfield Mountain Pumped Hydro Storage Station (NMPHS) is not the same as hydropower generated by a hydroelectric dam. NMPHS stores off-peak energy at Northfield Mountain by dragging the Connecticut River backwards and uphill, and then releasing that water downhill during peak hours of demand. Hydroelectric dams do not make rivers flow backwards and certainly not uphill.

This highly profitable, but hugely inefficient, net energy loss operation wreaks havoc with the river’s flow and water levels that in turn have devastating negative impacts on the river’s aquatic life and river banks. Rivers are not supposed to flow backwards. When they do, it’s generally the result of hurricane-force winds, which gives one some idea of how much energy is required to reverse a river’s natural flow.

We cannot allow the fact that water is the vehicle used to store energy at Northfield Mountain to lull us into believing that what is being produced is clean, efficient, renewable hydropower. Not being taken in by this fallacy is a prime example of the hard decisions we must make if we are to avoid a post-petroleum crash landing and an overheated uninhabitable planet.

FirstLight, the Canadian corporation that owns NMPHS, is in final negotiations with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for a new 50-year license to continue business as usual at Northfield Mountain. The shuttering of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in 2014 meant the end of FirstLight’s ability to store that plant’s excess energy at NMPHS. To remain relevant in a world transitioning to renewable energy, FirstLight has proposed that its facility store excess energy generated by wind farms located off the Massachusetts coast.

It is a conceit of the petroleum age that we can afford to waste energy to have some on hand for an emergency, and it’s a conceit we can no longer afford. Excess energy generated by coastal wind farms can be stored in compressed air storage tanks close to where it is produced and used, rather than transmitting that energy all the way to the Connecticut River and then hauling it, at great energy expense, up the mountain.

The final irony here is that, with one exception in 2003, the stored energy at Northfield Mountain has never been needed on an emergency basis to supplement our regional energy use, but that one instance is the justification FirstLight uses to continue their money-making enterprise, one that other energy entities have been too willing to accept and promote, including Eversource, ISO-New England, and the Massachusetts Department of Energy & Environmental Affairs.

It is time to tell FERC to put a stop to FirstLight holding us — and the river — hostage to an ecologically-devastating, energy-guzzling operation. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It’s time to retire NMPHS. It’s time to stop pretending the energy it generates is necessary or contributes to our clean energy goals. It’s time to let the river run.

Susan Olmsted lives in Greenfield and has a Master of Science Degree in Environmental Studies.


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