New Data: PSNH’s Coal-Fired Business Model in Free Fall

Nov 9, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

It’s not news that New Hampshire’s ratepayers are paying too much money to support PSNH’s ancient, massively inefficient, and heavily polluting coal-fired power plants. CLF has repeatedly called out PSNH’s calamitous insistence on continuing to operate coal-fired units at Merrimack Station in Bow and Schiller Station in Portsmouth and the resulting exorbitant electric rates that PSNH customers pay.

It’s still possible to be shocked, however, by the magnitude of PSNH’s growing problems and the environmental and economic harm that PSNH’s collapse is causing in New Hampshire. And the situation is worsening: new data are confirming the futility and waste of operating coal plants, and New Hampshire ratepayers are, in what is now a full-scale stampede, abandoning PSNH to meet their electric needs with cleaner, cheaper energy from competitors.

Here is an update on PSNH’s so-called “death spiral”:

Unprecedented Idling of Power Plants

A power plant’s “capacity factor” is a ratio between the amount of electricity the plant actually produced over a given period and the amount that it would have produced had it been running at full capacity during that time. Because coal plants – like nuclear plants – take some time to ramp up and take offline, they are built to operate with a very high capacity factor, on a 24-7 basis. In 2007, PSNH operated Merrimack Station’s coal boilers at 91% capacity and Schiller Station’s coal boilers at 84%.

The new reality for PSNH: these numbers have fallen precipitously since then; over the first nine months of 2012, Merrimack’s coal units had a capacity factor of 31%, and Schiller’s coal units 9.7%.

* 2012 data through September (source: EPA and ISO-NE data)

With dirty coal being trounced in the marketplace by cheaper power sources, especially natural gas, it is a disproportionately expensive undertaking to operate a coal unit – and a veritable folly at these levels of output.

Energy Service Rate Hike in 2013

The problem for PSNH’s customers is that even though the writing is on the wall for coal power plants around the country and here in New England, PSNH is still guaranteed a ratepayer-funded profit for owning Merrimack and Schiller, which is handed over to PSNH whether or not the plants produce power. Add it all together – PSNH’s operating costs for Merrimack, Schiller, and its other power plants, PSNH’s guaranteed profit, and the cost of the “replacement” power PSNH buys from the regional market to provide electricity to its customers while its plants sit idle – and PSNH customers are paying a huge and increasing premium over rates in the competitive market.

While there are many separate charges on an electricity bill, the “energy service” rate reflects the costs of generating the electricity. At the end of September, PSNH filed a projection (PDF) with the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission warning of a residential energy service rate increase to take effect on January 1, 2013. The utility requested a 26% increase in the amount customers pay for electricity supplied by PSNH, bringing the overall default energy service rate to 8.97 cents per kilowatt hour. PSNH has also separately requested a permanent rate increase to recover the costs of the $422 million mercury scrubber that, if passed, would bring the default energy service rate to 9.27 cents per kilowatt hour.

By contrast, just over the border in Massachusetts, PSNH affiliate NStar’s residential customers will be paying a mere 6.69 cents per kilowatt hour for power that NStar almost wholly buys from the regional market. NStar’s rates are, like virtually all New England utilities other than PSNH, reflective of the historically low electricity prices available in that market, which have steadily fallen since 2008.

What this means is that, come January, the average PSNH-served New Hampshire home will be subsidizing PSNH and its power plants to the tune of $169 per year, or more than $190 per year with the addition of the extra charge for the scrubber.

Residential and Small Business Customers Increasingly Abandoning PSNH

As CLF documented recently, PSNH’s increasing rates represent an enormous market opportunity for competitive energy suppliers in New Hampshire.

They are seizing it. September 2012 data show 17,507 residential PSNH customers (about 5%) purchasing power from non-PSNH suppliers, an increase of more than 6,000 customers over the month before and a whopping 16,000 more than September of 2011. The number of small businesses fleeing PSNH’s electricity supply has grown at a steady rate: 14,617 purchased power from non-PSNH suppliers in September 2012, compared to 9,351 in September 2011.

(source: PSNH filings with N.H. Public Utilities Commmission)

Meanwhile, the most recent data show that there are now virtually no large or medium-sized businesses that buy power from PSNH.

While retail choice in suppliers for New Hampshire’s residential and small business customers was slow in coming, the available options have expanded considerably in the past year. Resident Power, Electricity NH, and Glacial Energy all quote lower rates than PSNH, and they are increasingly offering additional choices of electricity supply from coal-free, renewable, and sustainable sources at fixed rates lower than PSNH. We can expect an even faster exodus to these suppliers and new ones like them after PSNH’s rate increase in January.

Despite the rapidly increasing number of customers choosing alternative electricity suppliers, the vast majority of New Hampshire’s residential customers still purchase their electricity from PSNH. Many customers are unable or too busy to research comparative rates and make the change. And energy supply choice alone will neither affect the astounding subsidies that PSNH is getting to prop up its failing business nor force PSNH to make the economically rational decision to retire its dirty, outdated coal plants.

We need to correct this massive public policy failure and bring to an end the severe economic, environmental, and public health damage that PSNH’s ancient coal plants are causing in the Granite State. There is now reason to believe that we are turning a corner. Maggie Hassan, New Hampshire’s new governor-elect, has been outspoken about the importance of reducing pollution from electricity generation, especially from PSNH’s coal fleet. CLF is ready to work with the new administration and Legislature to develop a comprehensive climate and energy plan that transitions the state out of the grip of PSNH’s coal-fired business model and moves New Hampshire toward a cleaner and affordable energy future.

Fellowship Attorney Caitlin Peale co-authored this post.

PSNH Ratepayers Get Cleaner, Cheaper Power Choices

Aug 13, 2012 by  | Bio |  4 Comment »

If you have a greener, cheaper choice, make it! (photo credit: ilovebutter/flickr)

Most customers of Public Service Company of New Hampshire get one of the worst electricity deals in New England. Their ratepayer dollars subsidize the operation of PSNH’s outdated, inefficient coal-fired power plants; they live with the public health impacts of air pollution from PSNH plants; they have seen (and will see) their rates rise thanks to PSNH’s abysmal planning; and they won’t see much if any benefit from the billion-dollar transmission project – Northern Pass – that PSNH is spending so much time promoting. Meanwhile, electricity for other New Englanders is getting cleaner and cheaper.

The good news for PSNH customers: they now have choices.

One of the more promising reforms associated with the restructuring of the region’s electric market in the late 1990s – “retail choice” – has been painfully slow to materialize for New Hampshire residents and small businesses. Most have been stuck with PSNH’s default energy service. (With their superior purchasing power, NH’s big businesses have been able to escape PSNH’s above-market rates for some time – either by buying power from the wholesale market themselves or through power buying groups organized by the likes of the Business and Industry Association.)

In the last few months, several companies – including Resident Power and Electricity NH – have started offering electric service to New Hampshire residents, and more companies are planning to do the same. Just last week, the Portsmouth Herald reported that USource (an affiliate of New Hampshire utility Unitil) is now working with chambers of commerce around the state to serve groups of small businesses. (UPDATE (8/14): Per today’s Union Leader, add Glacial Energy to the list.)

These companies’ rates beat PSNH’s energy service rate, and the savings are likely to increase as PSNH’s rate rises. And because these non-PSNH suppliers buy from cleaner, cheaper power sources, customers who switch do not pay to support PSNH’s dirty, uneconomic power plants. If you’re planning to switch, you should carefully read and understand the terms of your new contract. PSNH will continue to deliver your power and handle all billing.

It’s a win-win, a bit like finding that local, organic produce is priced less than conventionally-grown produce. (If you frequent one of New England’s many vibrant farmer’s markets or stop at a roadside stand this time of year, you often find yourself making exactly this discovery!)

But the competition is not good news for PSNH’s coal-fired business model  – or for the many customers who aren’t aware of their choices or are nervous about making the switch, whose rates will rise even faster as PSNH’s customer base shrinks. PSNH recently released its latest report on how many customers are making the switch – known as customer “migration” – and the numbers keep getting worse for PSNH. In June:

  • More than 86% of large commercial and industrial customers did not buy power from PSNH (accounting for 95% of the power delivered to such customers). Even though there was little room for them to grow, these numbers have climbed since last fall. 68% of medium-sized businesses also are choosing other suppliers.
  • With choices for New Hampshire residents and small businesses growing, PSNH’s numbers show that the percentage of residential customers who have left PSNH doubled (from a very small base) between April and June. This number is poised to increase dramatically. According to Electricity NH, which launched in June, it has already signed up 10,000 New Hampshire customers. We understand that Resident Power also is signing up customers at a fast clip.
  • Overall, 42% of power delivered to PSNH customers came from a supplier other than PSNH. This figure was 34% as of last July and has risen by almost a quarter in 12 months. Stated differently, since last July, PSNH has lost about 12% of its energy supply business.

These developments are only the latest signs that the writing is on the wall for PSNH’s coal-fired power plants and the disastrous public policy that keeps them in business. While CLF works to make sure New Hampshire policymakers get the message, PSNH ratepayers are getting the opportunity to send their own message to PSNH: no, thanks, we deserve better.

Coal Free Massachusetts Coalition Launches Campaign to Phase Out Coal

Jul 11, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Today marks the launch of the Coal Free Massachusetts Coalition Campaign to Phase Out Coal, Protect Public Health, and Transition to 21st Century Clean Energy. Across the state, in communities where the remaining coal plants operate, local residents and supporters have joined to call for the end of coal. The campaign issued the following statement:

It’s time to end reliance on coal-fired power plants in Massachusetts according to a new state-wide coalition of environmental, public health, faith and community groups, and elected officials. Citizens gathered in coordinated events across the state in Somerset, Holyoke, and Salem to announce a new Massachusetts campaign to protect public health and communities, renew efforts to make the transition to energy efficiency and clean renewable energy sources, and revitalize local economies to create more jobs.

Coal Free Massachusetts announced the following platform:

  • Phase out all of Massachusetts’ coal-fired power plants by 2020;
  • Advance energy efficiency and clean renewable energy like responsibly sited wind and solar to
    support the transition from coal electricity generation in Massachusetts
  • Partner with and empower community leadership and vision for clean energy and clean-tech
    development for our host communities, including:
  • Robust transition plans focused on the long-term health of the community
  • Innovative opportunities for growing the green economy
  • Support for workers and municipal revenues

Coal burning is highly polluting and devastating from a public health perspective. The coal burning plants in Massachusetts – Salem Harbor Station, Mount Tom (Holyoke), and Brayton Point Station (Somerset) – are the largest air polluters in the Commonwealth. In 2011, coal only provided 8% of the total energy in New England but still emitted more than 8 million tons of CO2 in Massachusetts alone. One in 10 New Englanders suffer from asthma and MA ranks 20th in mortality linked to coal plants. A 2010 Clean Air Task Force report showed that pollution from coal-fired power plants causes 251 deaths, 211 hospital admissions, and 471 heart attacks in Massachusetts every year. Nationwide more than 112 coal plants have announced retirement under pressure from local communities and efforts to protect public health. MA spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually – $252 million in 2008 alone – importing coal from other states and countries, including some places that are hostile to the US.

CLF has long worked to clean up dirty, polluting power plants, and is proud to be part of this continued effort to move Massachusetts away from reliance on coal and towards clean energy resources such as efficiency, conservation and renewable generation.  Click on the links to find out more about what CLF and the Coal Free Massachusetts coalition are doing and how you can join!

PSNH: Bad Planning and Old Power Plants Taking Their Toll on New Hampshire

Jul 2, 2012 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

As the nation continues to move beyond coal as a fuel for electricity generation, PSNH continues to cling to its obsolete, uneconomic coal plants that need massive subsidies from ratepayers to operate. Conservation Law Foundation recently filed a brief with the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission that blows the whistle on PSNH’s failure to meet its obligations under New Hampshire law to engage in responsible – or in some cases any — planning regarding the future operation of these plants.

New Hampshire requires that every electric utility file a biannual “least cost integrated resource plan,” which demonstrates that the utility has assessed its supply options and analyzed both the long and short term environmental, economic, and energy impacts it will have on the State. Instead, PSNH has filed a deficient plan that, by its own admission, has “very limited value” for decision-making purposes (Pg 115-116). CLF’s full brief in PDF format can be downloaded here. An excerpt:

PSNH’s business model is broken. PSNH’s energy supply cost structure is rapidly exceeding the ability and means of its ratepayers to pay, in what is now an intractable death spiral as customers migrate to competitive suppliers. The company over-relies on and has over invested in aging and uneconomic generating facilities at the expense of ratepayers and the environment. PSNH energy service customers are paying 40% or more above prevailing retail rates of other New Hampshire utility providers and the discrepancy is growing. The consequence is that hundreds of millions of dollars in above market payments are being extracted from New Hampshire ratepayers, while PSNH and its shareholders continue to benefit as if they are a low cost supplier, which the company clearly is not. The question before the Commission is whether the excessive costs being imposed by PSNH on its ratepayers and New Hampshire reflect, in some measure, the quality of PSNH’s 2010 least cost integrated resource plan (the “Plan”) and thus inform the adequacy of such planning as required by [New Hampshire law]. The Commission must decide whether lapses in PSNH’s planning materially contributed to adverse and avoidable ratepayer outcomes and the unsustainable rate spiral which will apparently require legislatively mandated cost shifting and/or lead to PSNH’s bankruptcy.

The evidence in this proceeding unequivocally demonstrates that PSNH’s planning failed to consider a multitude of material planning elements that are crucial to least cost planning. Without limitation, these include: 1) the Plan’s failure to include or consider forward price curves for natural gas which would dictate projected economic dispatch and margins; 2) the Plan’s failure to forecast customer migration which substantially informs the need for and cost-effectiveness of PSNH’s owned generation and entitlements; 3) the Plan’s failure to address or consider future environmental costs for PSNH’s generation fleet; and 4) the Plan’s failure to project forward energy service rates during the five year planning period. At the core of these planning lapses lies the question of whether and the extent to which it is in the ratepayers’ interests for PSNH to continue to own or operate its aging fossil fuel generation fleet, including the 1950’s vintage, small uneconomic coal units at Schiller Station. PSNH’s planning completely ignored the market trends which, beginning in 2008, reduced the capacity factors of Merrimack and Schiller Station to the point of being coal-fired peakers, notwithstanding the Plan’s assertion that they will remain baseload generators.

PSNH is continuing to ignore market realities, which is reflected by their failure to adequately plan for the future costs of continuing to operate its fleet of antiquated power plants. As we noted earlier this month, PSNH ratepayers are stuck subsidizing these uneconomic and dirty power plants through above-market energy costs.

Schiller Station, in Portsmouth, NH (photo credit: flickr/Jim Richmond)

If you’re looking for the most egregious example of PSNH’s poor planning, look no further than the continued operation of the two coal units at Schiller Station in Portsmouth. These two 1950’s era units operated at a loss of over $40 million between 2009 and 2010. An analysis conducted by the consulting firm Synapse Energy Economics predicted that this grim trend will only continue, and likely worsen, in the foreseeable future. These units are operating less each year, yet the cost to PSNH customers for the limited power they do produce is increasing. The report concluded that the continued operation of these units will result in future net losses and PSNH ratepayers should not be forced to pay for these shortfalls. PSNH needs to engage in a rigorous review of continuing to operate the coal-fired units at Schiller Station, as “given their age, operating costs, low reliability, and high heat rates, there is not likely to be any economic future for these units” (Pg 14).  Similarly, Connecticut’s integrated resource plan has predicted that the Schiller coal units should retire by 2015 for economic reasons (Pg B-21). Furthermore ISO-NE, the regional energy overseer, is also planning for the retirement of antiquated coal power plants, noting that these resources are facing economic challenges (Pg 9-10).

The operation of uneconomic units, coupled with PSNH’s ongoing attempt to recoup the cost of installing a $422 million scrubber at its half-century-old coal-fired Merrimack Station, boils down to increasing the energy rates for PSNH customers – already the highest in New Hampshire. This cost recovery charge, along with charges for above-market supply contracts, has led PSNH to propose a rate structure that will exceed 10 cents per kWh! As other companies enter New Hampshire to provide lower cost alternatives, the migration away from PSNH’s above-market rates has continued, worsening PSNH’s economic “death spiral.”

Why is PSNH acting this way? It’s pretty clear – like other dinosaur fossil fuel companies that have failed to anticipate the contours of a clean energy future, PSNH wants to preserve its subsidies to boost near-term corporate profits, virtually all of which are the above-market costs of PSNH power plants (including the 10% rate of return that New Hampshire guarantees). The New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission is taking note.  On June 27 it ordered PSNH “to undertake a systematic review of operation, materials and capital costs, including personnel costs, associated with the operations of its fossil fuel plants given the low capacity factors of these units.”

CLF is calling for PSNH to conduct a rigorous planning analysis to investigate whether continued operation of its antiquated coal units is in the best interests of New Hampshire. All the evidence suggests that, if credible, any such analysis would show, unequivocally, that it is (long past) time for PSNH to stop asking ratepayers to subsidize uneconomic and dirty coal power.

Ratepayers Subsidizing PSNH’s Addiction to Coal

Jun 4, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

This Sunday, an Op-ed of mine appeared in The Portsmouth Herald. Below find a copy of the original text. You can find a copy of the original story here.

The nation and New Hampshire are relying less and less on coal — our dirtiest, least efficient fuel — to meet our electric power needs. PSNH recently announced it is not operating its flagship coal plant, Merrimack Station in Bow; the plant will sit completely idle for six months of 2012. The two coal boilers at PSNH’s Schiller Station in Portsmouth will operate even less. Yet, PSNH customers continue to pay a premium to keep PSNH’s coal plants on life support, thanks to a regulatory system that protects PSNH’s interests over those of ratepayers.

Coal-fired power plants — expensive new facilities and decades-old dinosaurs like PSNH’s plants 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. Northeast Utilities — PSNH’s parent company — admits that this reality is not going away anytime soon.

Indeed, the trend is accelerating. In the first quarter of 2012, coal power accounted for only 36 percent of the nation’s total electric output — the smallest role for coal in a generation and down almost 9 percent from the first quarter of 2011. Regionally, a new milestone came in April, when the New England regional electric grid operator announced that, during the previous month, the entire New England coal fleet was uneconomic — meaning there was not a single hour when a coal plant was able to compete with other energy sources. Despite coal’s downward trajectory, PSNH made big bets that the market for coal-fired power will exist for years to come. Exhibit A: PSNH’s investment — over vigorous opposition from the Conservation Law Foundation, ratepayer advocates and others — in a $422 million life extension project for Merrimack Station. If PSNH gets its way, ratepayers will foot the whole bill, plus a 10 percent guaranteed profit for PSNH’s sole shareholder, Northeast Utilities.

Why has PSNH been so richly rewarded for bad economic decisions? Put simply, New Hampshire’s relic of a regulatory system still protects PSNH and its coal plants from the market. Remarkably, ratepayers continue to pay for upkeep and staffing at PSNH power plants, even when they sit idle, and also pay that same 10 percent profit on the book value of all PSNH assets. No other power plant owner in New England gets such special treatment. Yet PSNH continues to sidestep scrutiny.

Earlier this year, following a massive lobbying effort orchestrated by PSNH, the New Hampshire House voted to table a bill that would have forced a hard look at PSNH’s continued ownership of these obsolete power plants.

In the meantime, PSNH remains in an economic “death spiral” with few large business customers to cover its costs and its remaining customers — homeowners and small businesses — now paying as much as 50 percent more for power than customers of other utilities, which get their power from the competitive market. Under the status quo, PSNH will siphon more than a $100 million in above-market costs out of the New Hampshire economy this year.

For the environment, the climate, and the long-term public and fiscal health of the communities surrounding these plants, coal’s demise is encouraging news. The market is providing an unprecedented opportunity to relegate coal power to the history books for good. New Hampshire should seize it.

The “New Route” for Northern Pass Won’t Cure Its Failings

May 24, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

This summer, New Hampshire is bracing for news of the Northern Pass project’s future and its “new route.”

It’s now been nearly a year since the federal permitting process for the Northern Pass project was put on indefinite hold. North of Groveton, New Hampshire, the developer – Northern Pass Transmission LLC (NPT) – is still working behind tightly closed doors to string together a new section of the project route, where there are no existing transmission corridors, by paying landowners substantial sums for property – in many cases, well above market value.

Earlier this month, the chief operating officer of NPT’s parent company, Northeast Utilities, told investors:

Where we are right now is in procuring the last 40 miles of the right-of-way, and I can tell you we are making very, very strong progress in lining up the right of way. I think we’re on track for the middle of the year, approximately August timeframe to have the right-of-way secured and then to be prepared to file with the [U.S. Department of Energy] the route….

NPT’s apparent plan (assuming it really can overcome the considerable obstacles to a new route):

Not so fast. Before the news arrives (if it does), it’s worth remembering that whatever new lines the developer manages to draw on the map do nothing to change the project’s DNA or to demonstrate that the project will benefit New Hampshire. A brief review is in order:

Where are the benefits for New Hampshire?

Through  costly marketing efforts, NPT has been trying to sell New Hampshire on the tremendous economic and environmental benefits of Northern Pass. But the supposed benefits just don’t hold up to scrutiny:

  • Reduced emissions from “clean power”?

In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, CLF’s report on the most recent science demonstrated that new hydropower projects to supply power for Northern Pass are much worse for the climate than NPT’s false advertising claims have led the region to believe and are not meaningfully better than natural gas power plants (the power NPT predicts that Northern Pass would replace) in the early years after reservoirs are developed. As a result, contrary to mistaken but widely disseminated assumptions, importing hydropower from Canada is not a short-term solution that will reduce New England’s or New Hampshire’s carbon emissions. Indeed, the current proposal would have the perverse effect of protecting – rather than hastening the transition away from – PSNH’s low-performing, high-emitting power plants, which are New Hampshire’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. (Despite marketing the project based on its “clean” source of the power, NPT also refuses to acknowledge the relevance or importance of the troubling damage to ecosystems and communities that large-scale hydropower causes in Canada.)

  • Lower electric rates?

Those who would live with the new transmission lines, customers of NPT affiliate PSNH, are the least likely to benefit. Despite nearly two years of promises that PSNH would announce a plan to purchase Hydro-Québec hydropower for New Hampshire residents, there is still no agreement to do so. Any modest effects on the region’s wholesale electricity rates (which NPT’s consultant predicted based on outdated economic assumptions about energy costs) don’t translate into lower rates for PSNH customers (who instead are stuck paying the bill for PSNH’s inefficient and dirty power plants). In fact, if Northern Pass succeeds in lowering wholesale rates, it will likely worsen PSNH’s death spiral of increasing rates and fewer customers, leaving those residents and small businesses still getting power from PSNH with higher bills.

  • Growing New Hampshire’s clean energy economy and jobs?

There is a substantial risk that Northern Pass would swamp the market for renewable energy projects in New England, especially if state laws are amended to qualify Hydro-Québec power as “renewable.” Furthermore, the project’s high voltage direct current technology means that its massive investment in transmission capacity will wholly bypass the potentially fertile ground for renewable energy development in northern New England. Whatever the short-term construction jobs required (and NPT’s estimates are disputed), the current Northern Pass proposal may diminish the prospects for New Hampshire’s clean energy economy, including needed permanent jobs in the renewable and energy efficiency sectors.

No regional plan addressing new imports

Québec continues to implement its ambitious plan to develop more wild Boreal rivers into a new generation of massive hydropower projects, which will increase its export capabilities. This January, Hydro-Québec commissioned the final turbine at its latest hydropower facility (Eastmain 1-A) and will commission other turbines (at Sarcelle) as part of the same overall project later this year. Construction at the $8 billion Romaine River hydropower project (the subject of the film Seeking the Current) has begun and is ongoing, with the first unit expected to come online in 2014. Northeast Utilities has affirmed that Northern Pass will tap the power from these new projects. Meanwhile, Northern Pass competitors are moving forward with new transmission projects in eastern New England and in New York, among others:

Northern Pass and competitor transmission projects (source: ISO-NE)

More than a year ago, CLF and others urged the Department of Energy to weigh the region’s energy needs and develop a strategic regional plan that would determine a well-informed role for new Canadian hydropower imports in the northeastern United States’ energy future – before moving forward with the permitting process for Northern Pass. NPT’s only response was that responsible planning – encompassing the other pending transmission projects and a full consideration of the reasonable alternatives – would unacceptably delay its project – a truly ironic claim given NPT’s own, unforced, ongoing delay. More incredibly, the Department of Energy has so far sided with NPT, without explaining why.

So as Québec builds more dams and NPT buys up land, our region has no plan of its own. With no framework to understand the nature and extent of the appropriate role for Canadian hydropower, it is difficult if not impossible to make a sound, well-informed decision on whether Northern Pass – or projects like it – should proceed.

Community and grassroots reaction throughout New Hampshire

Since Northern Pass was announced in 2010, the project has inspired a broad-based and spirited movement of people throughout New Hampshire to oppose the current proposal. Last spring, there were massive turnouts at the Department of Energy’s public hearings on the project, with literally thousands attending and providing written and verbal comments both questioning the merits of the current proposal and urging a thorough environmental review. And earlier this year, a coalition of citizens and organizations of many political stripes succeeded in persuading New Hampshire’s legislature to enact a bill preventing projects like Northern Pass from using eminent domain. In another effort, more than 1,500 donors contributed total of $850,000 to enable the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests to preserve the treasured New Hampshire landscape surrounding the historic Balsams resort, including a parcel that NPT had sought to purchase as part of Northern Pass’s transmission corridor. To date, town meeting voters in 32 local communities have passed resolutions and ordinances against the current proposal. Critically, most of these communities are located along the NPT’s “preferred route” that follows PSNH ‘s existing transmission corridor, south of any “new route” that NPT may announce.

NPT’s refusal to consider routing and technological alternatives

At every turn, NPT has rejected calls for in-depth consideration of potential alternatives to its current proposal, including use of an existing high-voltage transmission corridor that extends from Canada, through Vermont and western New Hampshire, to Massachusetts; burying transmission lines in transportation corridors, as is proposed in the New York and eastern New England projects mentioned above; or adding capacity to that same New York project, consistent with that project’s original proposal (it has since been scaled back). Indeed, Northern Pass’s response to the public’s opposition to the project was to “withdraw support” for alternative routes and double down on its “preferred route.” While this stance may be in the economic interest of NPT and PSNH, it’s grossly at odds with a fair, well-informed permitting process that would vindicate the public’s interest in a solution with minimal environmental and community impacts.

If and when NPT comes back from its year of buying up North Country land and relaunches its effort to secure approval of the Northern Pass project, with the only change to the proposal consisting of a new line on the map north of Groveton, there should be no mistake: the fundamental flaws in the current proposal remain. Likewise, whatever NPT’s “preferred route,” CLF remains as committed as ever to securing a comprehensive and rigorous permitting process that identifies superior alternatives and a final outcome that moves us toward – and not away from – a clean energy future for New Hampshire and the region.

For more information about Northern Pass, sign-up for our monthly newsletter Northern Pass Wire, visit CLF’s Northern Pass Information Center (http://www.clf.org/northern-pass), and take a look at our prior Northern Pass posts on CLF Scoop.

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

Join CLF at a Free Screening of the Last Mountain on Wednesday, May 9 in Cambridge, MA

May 8, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

A keystone to CLF’s work to secure a clean energy future for the region is completing the transition to a coal-free New England. It is a time of historic progress: cleaner, cheaper alternatives are driving coal out of the market, and old coal plants are closing their doors. But Massachusetts remains a critical battleground for CLF’s work, with two costly old coal-fired power plants continuing to jeopardize public health and stoke climate change.

That’s why we’re delighted to tell you about an event hosted by Cambridge City Councilor Marjorie Decker entitled “The True Cost of Energy: Coal.” Councilor Decker has invited the public to a panel discussing the true costs of coal and a free screening of the critically acclaimed documentary The Last Mountain in Cambridge, MA, on Wednesday, May 9. With stunning footage of the practice of mountaintop removal mining, the film bears dramatic witness to the social, public health, and environmental damage wrought by coal and power companies, and chronicles the grassroots fight against coal in Appalachia and around the country. The New York Times called The Last Mountain a “persuasive indictment” of coal; I think you’ll agree.

The Last Mountain producer Eric Grunebaum will be on hand for a panel discussion to discuss the film and the future of coal-fired power in Massachusetts and New England. I will be available before and after the event to answer any questions you may have about CLF’s work to secure a coal-free Massachusetts.

Please attend:
When: Wednesday, May 9, 2012. 5-8:30 pm.
Where: Cambridge Public Library, 449 Broadway, Cambridge, MA 02138 (map).

Bring your friends and family, and email me at scleveland@clf.org with any questions. I hope to see you there!

You can watch the trailer here:

 

The Lights Will Stay On, Without Vermont Yankee

May 4, 2012 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

photo credit: riekhavoc, flickr

Another false claim by Entergy – the owner of the Vermont Yankee nuclear facility in Vermont – is laid to rest. On Monday, the ISO-New England came out with an important determination that Vermont Yankee is not needed for reliability of the electrical grid.

This has been brewing for awhile and is quite significant since Entergy keeps claiming its tired old and polluting plant on the banks of the Connecticut River is needed for reliability. That claim is simply false.

In a filing made with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the ISO New England stated:

“[T]he ISO determined that Vermont Yankee is not needed for reliability for the 2015-2016 Capacity Commitment Period. This determination is based on the expectation that certain transmission upgrades will be in place prior to the 2015-2016 Capacity Commitment Period as well as new resources which have been procured through the Forward Capacity Market.”  [see page 8-9 of this filing]

This is a very important determination and is good news for New England’s clean energy future. It shows the transformation of our power grid to cleaner sources and away from older and polluting coal and nuclear plants.

By way of explanation, the ISO New England operates the region’s electricity grid to ensure the lights stay on. It holds auctions to determine which resources will supply capacity to meet power needs in future years. This is the forward capacity auction referred to above.

What this means is that Entergy will not collect capacity payments for Vermont Yankee during 2015 to 2016.  That means that ratepayers will not be forced to prop up this tired, old, expensive and polluting nuclear plant, or its untrustworthy owners. Ratepayers will not be paying for Vermont Yankee to be available to operate.

This determination recognizes that grid improvements and new resources will keep the lights on without Vermont Yankee. Another false claim by Entergy is laid to rest. Our region moves one step closer to a cleaner energy future.

 

Page 3 of 612345...Last »