The Writing Is on the Wall for Coal. Will New Hampshire Notice?

May 10, 2012 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

We are in the midst of a massive, historic retreat in the nation’s use of coal to produce electricity, which began in 2008. This ongoing shift away from our dirtiest fuel has made news around the country. The primary reason: coal-fired power plants – expensive new facilities and decades-old dinosaurs alike – can’t compete in today’s marketplace. Investors and customers are moving toward cleaner, cheaper alternatives, principally natural gas but also renewables (especially wind) and high-tech ways of reducing energy use.

The national trend is occurring here in New Hampshire and throughout New England. This week, New Hampshire learned that PSNH is not operating its flagship coal plant, Merrimack Station in Bow, and that its economic prospects are not good. In fact, the plant will sit completely idle for six months of 2012, prompting the Manchester Union Leader to run the headline, “PSNH’s Bow power plant shuts down.” (The word “temporarily” was later added to the online story.) The two coal boilers at PSNH’s Schiller Station in Portsmouth will operate even less. (The Nashua Telegraph also took note.) This is welcome and long overdue relief for New Hampshire from New England’s top toxic polluter, and it would not have happened without legal pressure from CLF and others. More on our work in a moment.

Across the region, coal use has been collapsing for some time — and this was not unpredicted, as PSNH is claiming. PSNH’s claims to the contrary convey its willfully myopic planning perspective – a direct result of its expectation that ratepayers will cover its costs with a handsome profit irrespective of how utterly unsuccessful its investment decisions have been.

Coal-fired power plants’ “capacity factors” – their actual power output as a percentage of their theoretical maximum output at full power, running 24/7 – are intended to be very high; these plants were designed to run at close to full power day and night as “baseload” power for the electric grid. Not anymore:

In 2012, the trend is accelerating. Nationally, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that, in the first quarter, coal power accounted for only 36% of total generation – the smallest role for coal in a generation and down almost 9% from the first quarter of 2011. Regionally, a new milestone came in April, when the regional electric grid announced that, during the previous month, it didn’t dispatch any power from New England coal plants to meet the region’s electric demand.

For public health, air quality, the environment, the climate, and the communities where these plants are located, these trend lines are all in the right direction. For years, CLF’s Coal-Free New England 2020 campaign has fought to speed this progress and to make it permanent, by holding plant operators accountable for violating environmental laws (including at Merrimack Station), securing final and binding agreements to guarantee closure, and working in coalition with local residents to plan for responsible redevelopment and reuse of the plants’ sites.

In New Hampshire, with the complicity of state regulators, PSNH made big bets that the market for its coal-fired power will exist for years to come. One such spectacularly bad gamble was PSNH’s investment – over vigorous opposition from CLF, ratepayer advocates, and others – in a life extension project for Merrimack Station, including air pollution controls that address only some of the plant’s toxic and harmful emissions, to the tune of $422 million, plus a 10% guaranteed profit, money it now wants back from New Hampshire residents and small businesses through the regulator-approved rates it charges. Given coal’s collapse, which CLF and ratepayer advocates predicted at the time, this investment looks absurd and unwise, except of course to PSNH and its parent company Northeast Utilities, which has repeatedly reassured shareholders it is entitled to get back the full value of the upgrade, even if the plant barely runs.

Why has PSNH been so richly rewarded for such terrible economic decisions? Put simply, New Hampshire’s backward relic of a regulatory system is still protecting PSNH and its coal plants from the market. Remarkably, ratepayers continue to pay for upkeep and staffing at PSNH’s power plants, even when they sit idle, and also pay that same 10% profit on the value of all PSNH assets, including its quiet coal piles – and that’s whatever book value PSNH assigns, not market value.

PSNH has fought tooth and nail to protect its special treatment. Earlier this year, PSNH pulled out all the stops to kill a bill that would have directed state regulators to investigate whether PSNH’s ownership of power plants, including Merrimack and Schiller Stations, is in the best interest of ratepayers. After PSNH’s full-court press of lobbying, editorial board visits, and pressure from PSNH employees as well as PSNH-allied unions, politicians, and chambers of commerce, the House tabled the bill.

In the meantime, PSNH remains in an economic “death spiral” with very few large business customers to cover its costs. As a result, its remaining customers – homeowners and small businesses – are now paying as much as 50% more for power (8.75 cents per kilowatt-hour) than are customers of other utilities – which do not own power plants and get all their power from the competitive market (around 6 cents per kilowatt-hour). And the Legislature continues to seek the rollback of New Hampshire clean energy laws under the guise of easing ratepayer burdens, mistaking small trees for the forest of PSNH’s above-market rates, which include the costs of both PSNH’s idle fleet and buying power from more efficient plants.

What is CLF doing about it? Against the odds, we’re succeeding at forcing New Hampshire regulators to scrutinize PSNH’s costs, and the fact that PSNH’s coal plants are now sitting idle and the corresponding benefits to public health and the climate are a product of that scrutiny and a testament to CLF’s advocacy. And we’re pushing for regulators to do much more to hold PSNH accountable for its abysmal planning and force PSNH’s shareholder Northeast Utilities – and not suffering PSNH ratepayers, who are paying among the nation’s highest electric rates – to bear the downside of PSNH’s bad bets on coal. The last thing we should be doing with our energy dollars is subsidizing dirty power that can’t compete.

The market is providing an unprecedented opportunity to make that Union Leader headline from this week – and headlines like it for every other coal plant in the region – an enduring reality as New England transitions to a clean energy future. New Hampshire and the rest of New England should seize it.

A dispatch from the future? Manchester Union Leader headline, May 8, 2012

One Response to “The Writing Is on the Wall for Coal. Will New Hampshire Notice?”

  1. Jim Rubens

    In early 2009, when PSNH had only pre-ordered steel and completed some site prep for its death-spiral inducing scubber, a bill was heard before the NH legislature in the packed Reps hall asking for only this: a legislative study evaluating the ratepayer economics of alternatives to prolonging Merrimack Station’s life with the now-installed $420 million scrubber. One alternative featured in testimony would have been to halt scrubber construction, embed into ratepayer rates the still modest cost of the steel, site work, and vendor cancellation penalties, permanently shut down the plant, and for PSNH for buy far-cleaner, lower-cost, and abundantly available power from the wholesale market.

    Reps Hall was packed because PSNH turned out 250 union members who would later build the scrubber with matching green T-shirts saying “Don’t Scrub Our Jobs.” (No disparagement of union members right to advocate their interests intended here.)

    Support in the legislature for STUDYING OPTIONS immediately wilted and the bill was immedately and quietly killed.

    The PSNH death spiral was completely prectable before the scrubber was built and could have been avoided, resulting a lower electric rates for most NH ratepayers for years to come.

    Question: could a case be made before the NH PUC in its coming proceeding to determine how much of PSNH’s investment in the scrubber is allowed to be charged to ratepayers that — before the scrubber was built — PSNH was clearly warned (in a detailed and widely released white paper) and knew or should have known from its own information sources that there were high odds that the scrubber would make Merrimack Station uneconomic and to therefore disallow some or most of its costs in rates?

    I personally believe that PSNH knew this to be the case and was banking on its long-stsanding ability to cow the NH legislature and get its way with the PUC so that it could stick ratepayers with $40 million in annual profit on its Merrimack Station scrubber investment even if the plant became uneconomic.