Fighting Bad Bills in Rhode Island

May 13, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

My colleagues in CLF’s Rhode Island office have been doing some important work that deserves attention this legislative session. Two of their efforts stand out: opposing the governor’s attempt to create special legislation to import power from Hydro-Quebec, and opposing the Rhode Island House leadership’s attempt to create a state Commerce Department that would take over permitting functions from the Department of Environmental Management and Coastal Resources Management Council.

Rhode Island State House

Rhode Island State House, courtesy of Mr. Ducke @ Flickr

You’ve likely read more here (or here, or here) about Hydro-Quebec. The company, which (unsurprisingly, given the name) produces power from large-scale hydroelectric dams located throughout the Canadian province of Quebec, has been making a strong push to sell this power to states throughout New England. Hydroelectric power might not be so bad on its own, but Hydro-Quebec has some serious issues. Not least of these is that the most prominent proposal for transmitting additional power from Quebec to New England is a proposed transmission project through New Hampshire – the Northern Pass – that is being developed by New Hampshire’s dirtiest utility and is, in its current form, a deeply flawed proposal that may not provide meaningful environmental benefits. And, also distressingly, Hydro-Quebec has sought special legislation in each of the states it has been courting.

Here in Rhode Island, the governor has been pushing one such piece of special legislation; CLF Staff Attorney Jerry Elmer has been pushing back. The governor’s bill would require National Grid (Rhode Island’s only major electric utility) to solicit proposals and then enter into a long-term contract for a large-scale, 150-megawatt hydroelectric project. This requirement would not only displace but likely eliminate local, small-scale renewable projects that the current long-term contracting statute was designed to benefit. At the same time, it would likely drive up energy costs, sending Rhode Island dollars to Canada. And, again, importing more power from Quebec through this mechanism seems calculated to advance the poorly conceived Northern Pass project in New Hampshire. As Jerry told the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, it is rare that environmental organizations, energy utilities, existing renewable and conventional power plant owners, and ratepayer advocates unite so seamlessly and forcefully as they have in opposition to the large hydropower bill. And the representatives from these diverse interests all recognized Jerry’s leadership, frequently introducing their own testimony with the phrase, “As Mr. Elmer said …” – certainly a sign of effective advocacy.

Meanwhile, Rhode Island House leadership has been touting an “Economic Development Package” of bills designed to enhance the business climate in Rhode Island. Unfortunately, one of these bills would move DEM’s permitting functions and all CRMC programs and functions to a newly created “Executive Office of Commerce.”  The purpose of these moves would be to ensure that environmental permitting delays do not hold up business development.

At a hearing before the House Finance Committee, CLF Vice President Tricia Jedele pointed out the many reasons this proposed bill makes no sense whether viewed through the prism of policy or law. (You can view her testimony here, beginning midway through minute 162.) The bill ignores the reasons for permitting delays under the current regime: some delays are the result of the severe staff cutbacks DEM has suffered in the last several years; others are perfectly justified as a way to protect Rhode Island’s greatest asset – its natural resources – against exploitation. Moving permitting functions to a new Executive Office of Commerce would not restore DEM staff or better prevent exploitation.  Moreover, the bill suggests a tension between business and environment, even though a robust business climate and a clean, healthy environment can peacefully coexist under an adequate permitting regime. Perhaps most importantly, though, the bill could throw Rhode Island’s environmental permitting programs into total disarray. Many permitting programs are founded on authority delegated to the state by EPA under a host of federal environmental laws. These programs are subject to EPA oversight, and tinkering with them could easily result in EPA’s withdrawing approval and taking over permitting functions itself. Needless to say, this is not the goal of the commerce bill. Instead, Tricia told the Finance Committee, a simple solution would be to leave DEM and CRMC’s functions alone, to staff them adequately, and to add staffers to the new Department of Commerce who can help guide businesses through the permitting process. This argument was well-received, and CLF now has the opportunity to work with the House to reform the bill.

Again, my colleagues have been too busy doing this work to call attention to it, but I think it’s important to take a moment to recognize just how valuable they are to Rhode Island and its environment.

A Message to the Energy Industry: The Demise of Northern Pass 1.0

Apr 26, 2013 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

Earlier this week, I brought a message from New Hampshire to a gathering of major players in the Northeast’s energy industry in lower Manhattan, the Platt’s Northeast Energy Markets Conference.

wall street

(photo credit: flickr/Mathew Knott)

Remember Northern Pass, that novel Northeast Utilities transmission project that would import 1,200 megawatts of large-scale hydropower from Hydro-Québec?

The project, as it was conceived and pitched to the region and the industry, Northern Pass version 1.0 if you will, is dead.

I ran through the key financial elements of the original proposal, what I called the Northern Pass gambit:

  • $1.1 billion to build a new transmission line, funded wholly by Hydro-Québec.
  • A generous “return on equity,” or guaranteed profit on project costs, of 12.56% for project developer Northeast Utilities, paid by Hydro-Québec.
  • Easy and inexpensive siting approvals for the line, which would be located solely in New Hampshire, mostly in corridors controlled by Northeast Utilities subsidiary Public Service of New Hampshire, the state’s largest and most powerful electric utility.
  • Ample profits that would cover all Northern Pass costs and much more for Hydro-Québec, which would sell its hydropower in New England’s lucrative wholesale electric market, where energy prices were, in 2008 and 2009 when Northern Pass was conceived, orders of magnitude higher than Hydro-Quebec’s costs of generating power.
  • Unlike New England-based renewable projects, no public or ratepayer subsidies.

These elements looked good to investors on paper. But they have, one by one, fallen apart, and they no longer add up. I took the audience through the Northern Pass reality:

  • Years of a stalled siting process, as Northeast Utilities tries to purchase a new route for the northernmost 40 miles of the project, where PSNH has no transmission corridor, with repeated missed deadlines for announcing the new route and restarting the federal permitting process.
  • Increasing costs – an estimated additional $100 million in project costs already, even without accounting for any new route, mitigation commitments, or any underground component.
  • Growing doubt (even more pronounced than a year ago) that Hydro-Québec can recover Northern Pass development costs and its hydropower costs (which will only increase as costly new dam projects continue in northern Québec) through energy exports, given that wholesale energy prices in New England are now much lower.
  • Opposition by the vast majority of communities affected by the project, 33 at last count, local chambers of commerce, political leaders, and a diverse, well-organized grassroots movement of residents.
  • No support from any New England environmental group.
  • Mounting risk to NU’s lucrative return on equity, with the underlying deal expiring in 2014, and any renewal subject to federal regulators’ recently more skeptical view of such incentives.

And finally, I gave the eulogy for the key financial element of Northern Pass 1.0 – the one that attracted so much interest in regional energy circles, was the project’s key distinguishing feature from New England renewable energy projects, and continues to reside within the project’s discredited and misleading media campaign: the promise that the project would not require any subsidies.

In the last several months, as CLF predicted, Northeast Utilities, Hydro-Québec, and their allies have launched a major initiative to secure out-of-market subsidies of one form or the other for Canadian hydropower.  These efforts are now raging in the legislatures of Connecticut and Rhode Island and are simmering in other New England states. CLF is deeply engaged in protecting our state Renewable Portfolio Standard laws from this incursion and in turning back any long-term deals that will supply Canadian hydropower to these states at above-market prices or in a way that threatens renewable deployment in New England.

To us and to others, the false urgency associated with these proposals seems transparently calculated to advance a “Northern Pass 2.0,” just as Northern Pass 1.0 falls apart.

What would Northern Pass 2.0 look like? On the ground, whatever the “new route” New Hampshire continues to wait for, it will almost certainly look the same as Northern Pass 1.0, suffering from many of the same failings. But there will be some key differences, as the project’s underpinnings shift to accommodate a new economic reality. It will rely on public and/or ratepayer subsidies that will mean that New England will pay an above-market premium for the power or will provide an out-of-market gift of long-term energy price certainty to Hydro-Québec, in part to finance the associated transmission. In addition, many in New Hampshire’s North Country believe that the project will need to be sited on public land that is legally off-limits to circumvent the strong, ongoing efforts of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests to secure blocking conservation easements – in effect, another public subsidy for the project that will face overwhelming pushback in New Hampshire. (Clearly, Northern Pass’s dogged legislative fight to secure an ability to use eminent domain for the project, which it lost in resounding fashion in 2012, was only a preview of coming tactics.)  

As CLF has consistently said, there may be appropriate alternatives to Northern Pass that strengthen New England’s access to Canadian hydropower resources, but only if those alternatives are pursued through well-informed, fair, and transparent public processes, provide meaningful community and ratepayer benefits, displace our dirtiest energy resources, and verifiably result in carbon and other emissions reductions. It does not appear that the emerging Northern Pass 2.0 – buoyed by a set of special deals and no discernible improvements – would do anything to advance these basic common sense principles, which should guide the region’s transition to a resource mix that will power New England’s clean energy future.

With few signs that Northern Pass’s sponsors have learned lessons from their missteps so far, Northern Pass 2.0 looks to have an even tougher path in New Hampshire than the dead end road that Northern Pass 1.0 has traveled. This was a message from the Granite State that the world of energy industry insiders and analysts needed to hear.

Energy: Out with the Dirty, In with the Clean

Apr 23, 2013 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

Come join Conservation Law Foundation and our allies THIS SATURDAY in Burlington, Vermont for a discussion on Vermont’s Energy Choices.

Vermont’s Energy Choices: Old Dirty Problems and Clean Energy Solutions
Saturday, April 27th, 1:30 PM at the Billings Auditorium at UVM in Burlington

The time is NOW to move away from dirty sources of energy such as tar sands, nuclear, oil and coal. Solutions are available now to move us away from expensive, dangerous and polluting energy.

Come hear national and international experts on the problems of dirty energy – from fracking to tar sands – and  the real-world successes of renewable power – including community based renewable power in Europe.

Throwing up our hands is not an option. Come find out how to make a clean energy future our reality.

You can sign up and more information here:  See you Saturday!

Accomplishing Good Things Quietly: CLF On New England’s Electricity Grid

Apr 18, 2013 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

As New England’s leading environmental organization, CLF has more than 60 staff people who work every day for healthy communities, clean water, and to reduce carbon emissions that cause climate change.

Sometimes we win big victories that make headlines, like when my colleague, Shanna Cleveland, won a major victory in federal court that required the permanent shuttering of the Salem Harbor coal-fired power plant. You can see more about Shanna’s victory here; and you can learn more about CLF’s coal-free New England program, here.

Other times, CLF’s work is much quieter, and behind the scenes, in obscure forums that no one has ever heard of. And CLF sometimes accomplishes good things very quietly.

I recently participated in one of these quiet victories. CLF is an active, voting participant in the New England Independent System Operator (ISO-NE), the operator of the regional electricity system. You can read more about CLF’s work with ISO-NE here. Very few environmental organizations participate in this important forum and, of the few that do, CLF is by far the most active.

One of the things that the ISO is most concerned about is the “system reliability” of New England’s electricity grid. System reliability basically means that when you or I turn a light switch, the lights actually go on. No one wants to see power outages or blackouts, and the ISO’s concern with system reliability is sensible.

One of the things the ISO has been doing of late to improve New England’s “system reliability” is to encourage the owners of gas-powered electricity-generating plants to install dual-fuel capability that would allow those plants to burn oil during periods of natural gas shortage – that is, allow those plants to be more reliable. Part of the ISO’s plan was to make sure that, when such a gas shortage arose, these power-plant owners could and would get compensated properly for burning oil, which costs much more than natural gas.

Of course, burning oil to make electricity is also much, much more polluting than burning natural gas. And the way the ISO was going to structure this new system would have provided no reason for generators to burn gas when gas was actually available – because those generators would be fully compensated regardless of which fuel they burned.

CLF reluctantly accepts that some of these generators will burn oil on those very, very rare occasions (at most a few times a year) when cleaner fuels truly are not available. (Of course, an even better idea is to reduce demand by efforts like turning down electricity use in places like factories and large stores; and CLF has long worked to promote programs that pay for and encourage such “demand response” efforts.) And such burning of oil is always limited by the air-pollution permits (under the Clean Air Act) of the generators. At the same time, CLF wanted to make sure that ISO rules would never allow compensation to an electricity generator for burning a dirtier fuel when a much cleaner fuel actually is available (which is nearly always).

None of the ISO experts realized the potential danger of the ISO’s proposed rule change at the time it was being discussed. None of the electricity generators pushed to prevent the originally proposed rule change from going through. Why would they? They were going to get fully compensated for burning a dirty fuel even when a cleaner fuel was available!

But CLF noticed the problem, and was willing to push for a change. As of this writing, I am cautiously optimistic that our proposed change will be approved by the ISO (and later by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, that oversees and must approve ISO rule changes). The change that CLF pushed for would allow electricity generators to get compensated for burning a higher-priced, dirtier fuel only on those very rare occasions when cleaner, cheaper fuel is truly not available.

Ratepayers benefit because we are assuring the use of the lower-cost fuel whenever possible. And the environment benefits because we are assuring the use of the cleaner fuel whenever possible.

As I say: this was certainly a small victory. But if we are going to be able to address the threat of climate change successfully, it will take hundreds of victories in a variety of forums. Some of those will be big wins, like Shanna’s federal court victory in the Salem Harbor case. And others will be small, incremental steps in obscure forums like the ISO.

Northeast Utilities Still Can’t Reveal “New Route” for Northern Pass

Apr 2, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Northeast Utilities (NU) tells investors and the public that it is will announce a new northernmost route for its Northern Pass transmission project by a certain date. The date arrives. A “project update” appears on the website of NU subsidiary and project developer Northern Pass Transmission LLC, saying that it isn’t ready to announce the new route just yet.

What's behind the curtain, Northern Pass? (photo credit: flickr/Nick Sherman)

What’s behind the curtain, Northern Pass? (photo credit: flickr/Nick Sherman)

Sound familiar? It happened at the end of 2012. As reported in the Caledonian Record, it happened again last week, a mere month after NU said – in writing to investors and the Securities and Exchange Commission – that it would announce a new route by the end of March. This is the fourth self-imposed deadline that Northern Pass’s developer has failed to meet since last summer. You’d be forgiven if you started asking yourself whether Northern Pass’s route is the transmission equivalent of vaporware.

For whatever reason, NU has repeatedly misled the public and its investors about the Northern Pass project, and not just the project’s schedule.

Securities regulators should take note of this pattern of behavior and insist on honesty and transparency from NU, just as Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley did when NU recently balked at revealing its CEO’s 2012 compensation package. As we’ve said before, investors, the public, and our energy future depend on accurate information and forthright disclosures from energy companies. That’s not what we’re getting from NU on Northern Pass.

Public Hearing: Gas Pipeline Expansion

Mar 19, 2013 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

The Vermont Public Service Board will be holding a public hearing on the proposed expansion of Vermont Gas facilities.

Vermont Gas Systems Expansion

Thursday evening, March 21, 2013

7:00 p.m 

Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, Vermont

At a time when climate change is upon us we must think carefully about putting in place new fossil fuel systems that will be around for a very long time. Keeping us hooked on fossil fuels for many years is a bad idea.

The Board will be considering the proposed route, which runs through valuable wetlands and farmland. This is the beginning of a bigger project to supply gas across Lake Champlain to New York. It also moves Vermont closer to being able to access gas supplies from fracking, which is ongoing in New York and Pennsylvania.

Come let the Board know what concerns you have. Tell the Board you want to make sure energy is used wisely and that Vermont takes steps now to reduce our addiction to fossil fuels. It is important for the Public Service Board to hear from you.

Supporters Speak Up for Cape Wind as Department of Energy Considers Loan Guarantee

Mar 15, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

An offshore wind farm off the coast of the Netherlands. Image courtesy of Nuon @ flickr

An offshore wind farm off the coast of the Netherlands. Image courtesy of Nuon @ flickr

From California to Craigsville Beach on Cape Cod, nearly twelve hundred people joined together over the past week to voice their support for Cape Wind’s clean, renewable energy and to oppose the ongoing delays depriving our country of its first offshore wind project. Their comments were directed at the Department of Energy (DOE), which was seeking the public’s input as the agency considers a federal loan guarantee for Cape Wind. The immediate issue before DOE is whether to accept the project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement in its consideration of the loan. The rigorous environmental review has been deemed more than adequate by the country’s leading national, regional and local environmental organizations, including Greenpeace, the National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Mass Audubon, Conservation Law Foundation and more.

In a letter sent to DOE on Monday, more than two dozen environmental, clean energy, public health, business and labor stakeholders urged the agency to proceed without delay to consider and grant a loan guarantee for Cape Wind. The letter stated, “Cape Wind will concretely advance the nation’s objectives in addressing the challenge of climate change while promoting energy security and economic development. Following an extremely lengthy and rigorous environmental review, the Cape Wind project should proceed for consideration and grant of a loan guarantee without further delay. Such action will help lay the strongest possible foundation for offshore renewable energy development in the United States.”

Cape Wind Now’s petition to DOE activated Cape Wind supporters across the country who invoked everything from protecting their children’s future to much-needed jobs to national pride in calling on DOE to approve a federal loan guarantee for the project and unleash the potential of offshore wind, one of the country’s most promising, but as yet untapped, sources of clean, renewable energy. Supporters railed against the decade of delay perpetuated by fossil fuel billionaire Bill Koch and his Cape Wind opposition group, the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. In yet another delay tactic, the Alliance and a couple of House Republicans recently sought to distract DOE and wrap up the loan guarantee process in red tape by questioning the completed, thoroughly researched and vetted environmental review. “No more delays!” was the common refrain from petitioners, including many Cape residents, who pleaded with DOE to do everything in its power to get the wind turbines built now.

DOE announced in November 2012 that it was considering a federal loan guarantee for the project. The DOE loan guarantee is a key component of Cape Wind’s financing, lowering the cost of the project’s debt and ultimately the cost of Cape Wind to Massachusetts ratepayers. DOE will issue its decision in the coming months.

Want to stay current on Cape Wind’s progress? Sign up to receive email updates from Cape Wind Now.

Global Warming Conference – Saturday March 16 – Montpelier, VT

Mar 11, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Senator Bernie Sanders is hosting a Global Warming Conference – What does it mean for Vermont?  — on Saturday March 16 from 10am to 4pm at Montpelier High School in Montpelier Vermont.

Bill McKibben will be the Keynote Speaker and Senator Sanders will be joined by Vermont and national leaders for workshops and discussions about climate change and what it means for Vermont.

I am pleased to join Senator Sanders and Bill McKibben for this event. It is a great opportunity to learn more about how we can tackle climate change together.

The event is free and open to the public and lunch will be provided.

More information is available here.

Familiar Cautionary Tale Unfolding at Mt. Tom

Mar 7, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Mount Tom power plant in Holyoke, MA.

A familiar story appears to be unfolding at the Mt. Tom coal plant in Holyoke, Massachusetts. According to recently released documents, the owner submitted what is known as a Dynamic Delist Bid with ISO New England (ISO-NE), the operator of the New England electricity system and markets, and ISO-NE accepted the bid.

This means that during the 2016-2017 capacity commitment period the plant will not be obligated to run and will not receive any capacity payments. The plant could still run and be paid for the electricity it makes, but the act of de-listing means that Mt. Tom’s owner thinks there is a significant chance it will not be economic for the plant to run during that year.

This is not surprising given the sharp decline in how often the plant has been running over the past few years:

This news is particularly significant for two reasons:

  • First, submitting a de-list bid to leave the market for one year has been the first step on the path to retirement for two other coal-fired plants in Massachusetts, Somerset Station and Salem Harbor Station;
  • and Second, the fact that ISO-NE accepted the de-list bid means that it determined that Mt. Tom can exit the capacity market for that timeframe without any impact on reliability. That’s a good indication that Mt. Tom could permanently retire without impacting the system, although some additional analysis would need to be done.

Although this is welcome news, because it means the end of a long legacy of pollution, it is not surprising. Even Brayton Point, New England’s largest power plant is facing desperate financial circumstances. Coal-fired power plants have been faltering across the country over the last two years, and CLF, Coal Free Massachusetts and local allies have been warning that Mt. Tom is not only a polluting, outdated relic but that it is also an unprofitable, unstable source of revenue for the City of Holyoke and that now is the time to plan for a cleaner, brighter future.

A task force created to examine the issue of retiring, demolishing, and eventually redeveloping the sites of aging coal-fired power plants in the Commonwealth will be visiting Holyoke on March 6 for a meeting with ISO-NE and a tour of the Mt. Tom plant.  CLF and its local allies are urging the task force to open this meeting to the public and to solicit more public input on the process.  Thus far, although meetings have been open to the public, there has been little effort to engage local community members.  Engaging the public is critical to an open, fair, transparent process that will create results that the entire community can get behind.