My Turn: Time to retire the Northfield Mountain Pumped Hydro Storage Station

  • FILE PHOTOConnecticut River

Published: 4/29/2021 1:17:13 PM

After reading Alicia Barton’s (CEO of FirstLight Power Resources) My Turn column (April 23) promoting the Northfield Mountain Pumped Hydro Storage (NMPHS) Station as “an asset in fight against climate change” and “… the largest clean power producer in New England ...” I felt compelled to write.

NMPHS is not now nor has it ever been a source of clean, renewable hydropower. It is a hydropower storage facility that buys off-peak, lower-priced energy (primarily from non-renewable energy sources) to pull water from the Connecticut River backwards and uphill to a storage reservoir to be released back to the river as “hydropower” during higher-priced peak periods. It’s a classic “buy low/sell high” investment strategy and is highly profitable. From a financial perspective it makes perfect sense. From an environmental perspective it’s a perfect nightmare.

Built by Northeast Utilities to capture excess energy generated by the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, granted a 50 year license to operate in 1968 by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), promoted as essential to guaranteeing our electrical grid during times of peak energy use, and marketed as a recreational asset for outdoor activities, it is so embedded in this area where we live that most people probably can’t remember a time when it wasn’t here. And because the water withdrawals happen overnight, many people may be unaware that it’s even happening or understand the damage that it is causing to a 20-mile stretch of the Connecticut River.

Hydro storage facilities operate by moving water between an upper and a lower reservoir. NMPHS is an open-loop system, meaning that it uses an open body of water (in this case the Connecticut River) as its lower reservoir. An open-loop system is inherently more ecologically damaging than a closed-loop system (one that uses manmade reservoirs for both the upper and lower reservoirs) because it subjects a natural water source — in this case, a 20-mile stretch of the Connecticut River that includes the Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish & Wildlife Refuge — to the very unnatural process of being pulled backwards and then uphill on a daily basis.

This 20-mile stretch of the river extends from the Turners Falls Dam to the Vernon Dam in Vermont. The disruptions to water flow and the changes to the water level caused by the daily withdrawal and return of billions of gallons of water have caused extensive erosion to the riverbanks and created havoc for the river’s aquatic life, most notably the hundreds of thousands of native American shad that return to this river annually to spawn.

Thanks to improved fish ladders at the Holyoke Dam the majority of migrating shad make it to the Turners Falls Dam, but very few make it beyond that point. Why not? Faulty fish ladders are part of the problem, but an even bigger problem is the massive fluctuation in water levels the fish encounter here, from very low-flow conditions when NMPHS is sucking all those billions of gallons of water out of the river to the high-flow, surging conditions when that water is released. That’s a lot to contend with, even for fish who are used to swimming upstream.

FirstLight is currently negotiating a new 50-year license with FERC to continue business as usual on the Connecticut River. In order to market themselves as contributing to the commonwealth’s clean renewable energy goals, they are positioning themselves as a natural partner to store excess energy generated by proposed coastal wind farms. It would be nice to think that using a renewable energy source to move this water backwards and uphill would somehow be less damaging to the river ecosystem, but the damage is caused by the process itself, regardless of the energy used to move it.

After 50 years of operation, we now understand the environmental damage this open-loop system causes. I strongly believe that FirstLight should not be granted a new license by FERC and that NMPHS should be retired. If you share my belief, I urge you to write your own letters to this newspaper, call or write your elected representatives, and email your comments to FERC (www.ferc.gov) referencing Project License P-2485.

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


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