Breaking News: NESCOE Suspends Votes on Tariff Proposals

Aug 1, 2014 by  | Bio |  9 Comment »

The New England States Committee on Electricity (“NESCOE”), an entity created to carry out the policy directives of the New England governors, had been hurtling down the track towards forcing electric customers to pay for a massive, new natural gas pipeline as well as new transmission projects to import large-scale Canadian hydropower. This morning at the monthly meeting of the voting participants in the New England Power Pool (“NEPOOL”), NESCOE signaled that the train is going to slow down.

In a surprising and welcome move, NESCOE announced at the meeting that it is delaying action on both the gas and electric proposals that it has been pursuing–proposals that have the potential to put billions of customer dollars at risk. NESCOE formally requested that all of the votes that had been scheduled for the proposals be taken off the calendar to allow for a delay of  “at least a month.”

For months now, CLF has been calling upon NESCOE and the New England Governors to bring these flawed proposals and the reasoning behind them out into the open. Until now, the formulation of and negotiations around these proposals have been conducted almost completely behind closed doors.  With this delay, NESCOE and the officials who direct its actions have a real opportunity to address procedural and substantive concerns — raised by CLF and other stakeholders —  by embracing a transparent, open process that includes a meaningful assessment of alternatives, including: efficiency, better utilization of existing infrastructure, and more renewable distributed generation. After all, the initial studies for NESCOE indicated that under a “low demand” scenario there would be no need for additional infrastructure at all.

This time around, CLF urges the Governors to require NESCOE to include an evaluation of the cost-effectiveness of all alternatives, as well as an assessment of which solutions are actually consistent with achieving the long-range energy and climate objectives of the New England states.

The NESCOE announcement also followed a compelling argument by CLF at the last Transmission Committee meeting on July 22, regarding the need for these proposals to be properly vetted through ISO-NE’s “Major Initiatives” process. These proposals carry with them the power to shape New England’s energy system for the next 40-50 years, so an open, public process is imperative. CLF will continue to provide the public with up-to-date information as it becomes available.

You’re Fired! – I Quit!

Apr 2, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Entergy-VYThe owners of the troubled Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant chose to “quit” before they were “fired.”

The recent regulatory decision by the Vermont Public Service Board highlights the long and troubled history that led most Vermonters to completely lose faith in the owner’s ability to responsibly manage the plant.

In stark terms the Board recognized that the “sustained record of misconduct has been troubling to observe over the years.”  Specifically, the Board stated:

“In its twelve years of operating in Vermont, Entergy VY has failed to comply with numerous Board orders and statutory requirements. It has failed to follow procedural requirements that protect the integrity of Board proceedings. The Company has engaged in unacceptable conduct that erodes public trust and confidence in its capacity to act in good faith and to engage in fair dealing; an investigative report prepared by Vermont’s Attorney General concluded that Entergy VY  ‘repeatedly misled State officials with direct misstatements and repeatedly failed to clarity misperceptions.’” (emphasis added).

This bad track record was on display throughout years of regulatory review. Seeing the writing the wall, it is no surprise then that Entergy chose to “quit” before being “fired.”

The Board’s decision allows for a winding down of Vermont Yankee’s operations with its closure within a year. The agreement approved by the Board does not provide much additional value for Vermont, but when the bad egg you were going to fire “quits,” you’ve already won.

Keenan’s Poison Pill Seeks to Exempt Salem Gas Plant from Permitting Process

Nov 13, 2013 by  | Bio |  8 Comment »

What would you sacrifice to have a power plant built in your backyard? Apparently, for Representative John D. Keenan of Salem, MA, the answer is just about anything. Representative Keenan is no stranger to handing out (or at least trying to hand out) sweetheart deals to power plant owners, but his latest attempt to get a power plant built in Salem, no matter the cost, is both unconstitutional and unconscionable.

Unhappy with the pace of the permitting process for the new natural gas plant planned by Footprint Power, a New Jersey-based developer, Keenan has hijacked an otherwise well-intentioned legislative effort to protect workers and the public from aging natural gas infrastructure, and is holding it hostage by adding language that would exempt Footprint Power from every single environmental and public health standard and permitting regime in favor of as-of-right approvals. Keenan’s proposed language attempts to allow Footprint to make an end run around any pesky appeals by local residents. It even purports to strip residents of their rights to appeal a federal air permit on the grounds that this project somehow should be exempt from complying with the laws, regulations, and public process that every other proposed power plant in the Commonwealth has had to satisfy.

Why would an elected official go so far out on a limb for one project? The legislation claims that the reliability of our electric system is at risk unless this plant is built without delay, but the truth is that ISO-NE, the regional electric grid operator, has a responsibility to plan for alternatives if the power plant doesn’t progress on schedule — and many of those alternatives, such as already planned transmission upgrades, may be cheaper and less carbon intensive.

According to Representative Keenan, the MA Energy Facilities Siting Board unanimously approved the construction of the facility, but he fails to mention that Ann Berwick, Chair of the Department of Public Utilities, expressed “misgivings” about approving the plant given that “the world is on a precipice” with respect to climate change, and that one board member declined to vote because he did not believe that the project had demonstrated that it could comply with the requirements of the state’s greenhouse gas reduction mandate, the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA).

Indeed, CLF filed an appeal of the Siting Board’s decision last Friday because there is simply no credible evidence in the record to show that this natural gas power plant will be able to comply with the requirements of the GWSA.

What is the GWSA, and why is it so important here? The Global Warming Solutions Act was passed in 2008 amid the growing awareness that climate change poses serious and imminent threats to the health and environment of all Massachusetts residents. Proof of that threat has mounted as storms like Irene, Nemo, and Sandy (not to mention this week’s super-typhoon Haiyan) have left devastation in their wake. The GWSA set mandates for reductions of greenhouse gas emissions in the Commonwealth, mandates that are based on what the science tells us is necessary to avert the worst effects of climate change. The GWSA also requires that every agency must consider the effects of climate change in issuing any decision or approval.

Footprint Power and Representative Keenan have claimed that the proposed natural gas plant somehow will benefit the climate, but in doing so they seem to ignore that this new power plant would be capable of emitting over 2 million tons of carbon dioxide a year – a significant problem if we’re going to de-carbonize the electric grid by 2050, as necessary.

The bottom line is that while natural gas may burn cleaner than coal and oil, it is still a fossil fuel with significant carbon emissions. Locking in new natural gas infrastructure means locking out zero-carbon technologies like wind and solar. Footprint Power is proposing the first new natural gas plant since the enactment of the GWSA.  If we don’t set a strong precedent now for ensuring climate compatibility of new energy infrastructure – and ensuring bedrock environmental, public health and public trust protections are applied – then there is little chance we will succeed in meeting our climate mandates and protecting Massachusetts and its residents. Unfortunately, Representative Keenan has chosen protecting Footprint’s gas plant from review over protecting his constituents and the public process they’re due.

As a Hail Mary pass, it’s an odd one to be sure. Even if Keenan succeeds, the provision is not expected to survive review by the courts and probably would serve only to delay the required public process.



Fighting for Cleaner, Cheaper Energy Through Distributed Generation

Oct 23, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

CLF is taking an active role in the newly-created Distributed Generation Forecast Working Group (DGFWG) of the Independent System Operator-New England (ISO-NE). The ISO-NE is the operator of the New England electricity grid.  You can read the background on CLF’s on-going work with ISO-NE.

What is Distributed Generation?

Distributed Generation (DG) is small, local, electricity-generation facilities; DG most often refers to renewable energy.  According to the ISO-NE, “[t]he most common distributed generation resources include: solar photovoltaic (PV), small-scale wind, fuel cells, combined heat and power, and small hydro-electric power.”

Every state in New England has laws designed to encourage renewable DG, usually as part of a broader package of laws that encourage renewable energy.  In recent years, these laws have been effective in stimulating the development of many megawatts of renewable energy in all six New England states.

But we do not really know how much.  In fact, the ISO-NE believes that 85% of all the renewable-energy DG in New England is “invisible” to the ISO-NE – that is, the ISO-NE is neither aware of its existence nor of its location.  The purpose of the ISO-NE’s newly-formed DGFWG is to correct this problem, to identify how much DG there is in New England, what type (that is, technology) it is, and where it is located.

What is Happening?

At the very first meeting of the DGFWG, on September 30, the ISO-NE circulated a proposed “Scope of Work” for the Working Group.  CLF, together with the Maine Office of the Public Advocate (MOPA), is advocating that the ISO change significantly the Scope of Work for the new DGFWG. 

The primary suggestion we are making is very simple.  The ISO-NE’s proposal would have the DGFWG look only at the costs and engineering challenges presented by DG.  As CLF would revise the Scope of Work, the DGFWG would examine and quantify both the challenges and the benefits from DG.

This is an important distinction.  DG is like every other energy source in the world:  it comes with both costs and benefits.  (For example, coal has the benefit of being cheap; but it has the costs of being extremely dirty, putting toxic mercury into the atmosphere, and being a major cause of climate change.)  By contrast, renewable DG may cost a little more than coal, but DG is clean, creates local jobs, builds an area’s economy, and does not spew either toxic mercury nor greenhouse gas pollution into the atmosphere.

Today, every state in New England has a pretty good idea how much extra it is spending to encourage development of clean renewable-energy DG.  But no one has ever tried to accurately quantify either how much DG we are getting for that extra spending (in megawatts), nor quantify the ratepayer benefits we are reaping (in dollars).  CLF is advocating to have the DGFWG make a start on correcting that imbalance, by accounting for the many benefits of DG that is already on the system.

The existing DG on the ISO-NE’s electricity grid can confer benefits to ratepayers in a variety of ways.  For example, knowing about existing DG may enable the ISO-NE to be able to buy less of the most expensive electricity at times of peak loads, thereby saving money for ratepayers.  Knowing exactly where the DG is located may help my reducing the need to build out expensive new transmission projects, thereby resulting in more ratepayer savings.  But ratepayers can only realize those benefits if the ISO-NE “sees” and properly accounts for the DG that the states have already paid for.

What Can be Done?

I represent CLF on the DGFWG, and here is one aspect of that representation that I especially like.  Sometimes, we environmentalists are criticized for wanting industry (and the public) to spend more money for environmental safeguards.  Of course, I understand the many invaluable benefits to the public health and well-being that come with those safeguards; nevertheless, the criticism that is often heard is that environmentalists are costing the public money.

But our work on the DGFWG is doing just the opposite.  In this case, we are fighting to save the public money.  Every New England state is spending money (sometimes millions of dollars) on DG.  We environmentalists have sold DG to the public by explaining – honestly – that DG confers many benefits.  But ratepayers only reap the financial benefits of DG if the ISO “sees” and properly accounts for the DG that is already on the system.

CLF was very pleased to be joined by the Maine Office of the Public Advocate – the statutory ratepayer advocate in Maine – in submitting joint recommendations for changes to the DGFWG’s Scope of Work.  We are pleased because both CLF and MOPA are trying to advocate for ratepayer interests here.

Reading Your Street: What You Can Learn About Natural Gas Infrastructure

Aug 9, 2013 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

You’ve heard of the writing on the wall, but what is all that writing on the sidewalk and the street? You’ve seen it—yellow, orange, blue, red and white.

Some of it is pretty easy to decipher like “DS” for “Dig Safe” or “STM” for “steam” but some of the drawings look more like ancient hieroglyphics.


It’s incredible what’s running right beneath our feet, like an entire natural gas infrastructure, but we rarely take time to think about it.

In Massachusetts, we have over 21,000 miles of natural gas distribution pipeline running under our streets. That’s almost enough pipeline to circle all the way around the Earth. For perspective, you could drive from Boston to San Francisco and back three times and still not put 21,000 miles on your odometer.

I’ve been thinking about what’s under the street a lot over the past two years. In July 2011, I was introduced to a professor at Boston University, Nathan Phillips, who had embarked on a journey of mapping natural gas leaks in the City of Boston. Using a high tech sensor, Nathan was detecting leaks and translating them into incredible visual representations that called attention to the aging natural gas pipelines criss-crossing our city.


Maps created by Nathan Phillips of Boston University

After I saw Nathan’s maps, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of the ground. Whether I was walking or biking, I started to notice all kinds of infrastructure, not just natural gas, everywhere.

There were “Gardner Boxes” in front of the houses on my street—these are one type of emergency shut-off valves for gas service lines.


Emergency Shut-Off

Then there were the large, bold, golden “G”s on the street, sometimes accompanied by CI (which stands for cast iron) or PL (for plastic) or BS (for bare steel), or CS (for coated steel) 18-in or 12-in or 3-in (telling me the diameter of the pipeline), and NGrid or NStar (the name of the company that owns the pipeline).

Suddenly, I could tell a lot about my street just from looking down. But what I couldn’t tell from the markings alone was just how important natural gas infrastructure is for a safe, thriving and sustainable neighborhood. That took some digging of a different variety.

Leaking Pipes Contribute to Climate Change

What I found was surprising and unsettling. Massachusetts has some of the oldest natural gas pipelines in the country. Almost 4,000 miles of the pipeline in Massachusetts is cast iron and another 3,000 is what’s known as “unprotected steel” (meaning unprotected from corrosion). These two types of pipe are referred to as “leak-prone pipe” in the industry because they are highly susceptible to breaks, fractures, and corrosion. Cast iron pipe was first installed in the 1830s, and some of the pipe in Massachusetts that is still in service dates to the Civil War. The gas utilities have started to focus on replacing this “leak-prone” pipe, especially since the tragedies in San Bruno, California and Allentown, Pennsylvania brought home how dangerous old pipelines can be.

But replacing old and leaking pipelines isn’t solely about public safety. It’s also a matter of conserving a valuable natural resource and tackling climate change. Natural gas is up to 95% methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide on a 100 year time frame. When natural gas is combusted, in your furnace or in a power plant, it emits much less carbon dioxide than oil or coal, but when it’s leaked directly into the air from a pipeline, it adds up to a significant source of greenhouse gas pollution.

Unfortunately, current methods for estimating just how much natural gas is leaking from pipelines aren’t very accurate. What we do know is that leaking pipelines in Massachusetts are releasing between 697,000 tons of CO2e and 3.6 million tons of CO2e every year. That’s a huge range, and one that we’re working to narrow with the help of Professor Phillips and his students. These leaks can also take a heavy bite out of gas customers’ pocketbooks, as a recent report prepared for Senator Ed Markey showed.

What You Can Do

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting more information here about the efforts to replace leak-prone pipeline in Massachusetts and what you can do to make sure that your street is both safe and climate friendly. Until then, here are a few tips to remember:

1) Dig Safe—You never know what types of pipelines, wires, or cables may be running under your lawn or sidewalk. Dig Safe will contact the utilities so that they can mark the lines for you. Even for small projects like planting a tree, always check in with Dig Safe before you dig. It’s free, and it’s required by law to keep you and your neighbors safe. You can check the website or simply call 811 before you dig.

2) Report Leaks—If you think you smell gas, put out all open flames and do not use lighters or light matches. Do not touch electric switches, thermostats or appliances. Move to a safe environment and call your gas company or 911 to have them come check it out. Here is the contact information for Massachusetts’ three largest gas companies: Columbia GasNational Grid, and NStar Gas.

3) Conserve—It sounds simple, but using less is one of the most important steps you can take to reduce the climate impacts from natural gas. Contact MassSave for a free home energy audit.

4) Contact your Legislator—Legislation is pending in Massachusetts right now that would help fix these leaks. We’re supporting H.2933 and portions of S.1580. I’ll be writing more about this in the coming weeks, but in the meantime, you can take a look at the testimony we filed with partners like Clean Water Action.

“No supportable basis for optimism” and “ever higher costs”: PUC Staff calls out PSNH’s failed business model

Jun 10, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

This past Friday, staff from the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission and The Liberty Consulting Group issued the results of their investigation (PDF) into the impacts of PSNH’s failing business model and “ever higher costs” to consumers. The Union Leader and NHPR were quick to quote the report’s damning conclusion:

In summary, the situation looks to worsen, as continuing migration from PSNH’s default service by customers causes an upward rate trend. We find no supportable basis for optimism that future market conditions will reverse this unsustainable trend, especially in the near term. To the contrary, the PSNH fossil units face uncertainties that combine to create a risk of further, potentially substantial increases in costs.

This underlines the benefits of abandoning PSNH’s residential energy service, noting that “PSNH’s default service rate has exceeded [competitive supplier] rates since mid-2009.” As PSNH itself stated in a filing before the NH Supreme Court in May, PSNH energy service ratepayers “have the legal right and ability to avoid payment of PSNH’s default energy service rate entirely by buying their electricity from a competitive electric power supplier.” The PUC staff’s report serves as a call to action for New Hampshire consumers to save money, protect their finances, and improve the environment by buying energy from lower cost and more efficient energy suppliers.

PSNH’s only public response to the report thus far has been to cite the dispatch of their coal units during extreme temperature events this year as evidence that the plants are necessary “insurance” against natural gas price increases. The report itself contradicts this, however, noting that even at this year’s levels of natural gas price spike frequency and severity in New England (due to a cold winter and a late spring heat wave two weeks ago), natural gas price fluctuations “have not served to give the PSNH fossil units enough of a boost to overcome their negative value,” and that PSNH has not offered any data or analysis to rebut this finding. That is, even with the extreme peaks of electric demand felt in the past year requiring their use more often than in the past few years, PSNH’s fossil fuel fired power units still lose ratepayer money.

The report assesses the real financial impacts of PSNH’s past and possible future decisions to invest in their coal units rather than shut them down, and demonstrates that the ratepayer money lost if PSNH’s electricity generation is sold off will be lower than many might fear. The key points raised by the report include:

  • Even in a best case scenario, PSNH’s already above-market rates will continue to climb. The investigation calculated PSNH’s energy service rates with a myriad of possible variables, including high natural gas prices and lower coal prices (the scenario that PSNH claims will validate its economic decisions) and a migration rate lower than PSNH reported this April. In all cases, the report found that PSNH’s default energy service rate would climb still higher than their current well above market 9.54 cents per kilowatt hour rate, to 10 or 11 cents per kilowatt hour.
  • Customers continue to flee PSNH’s energy service. CLF has been reporting the steep increase in residential customers rejecting PSNH’s high energy service rates for a while now. We’ve also noted that most large commercial customers had migrated away from PSNH years ago. The combination of these two trends led to the report this May that migration across all customers reached half of PSNH’s total load as of the end of April.
  • The full cost of the Scrubber Project has yet to be felt by ratepayers. PSNH has started recovering the cost of the ill-founded scrubber installation at Merrimack Station to the tune of 0.98 cents per kilowatt hour on a temporary basis. The report estimates that full recovery of the scrubber’s cost would nearly double that amount, to 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour added to ratepayers’ bills. This, of course, is a cost that competitive energy service providers don’t have to deal with.
  • Looming environmental compliance projects as Scrubber redux? PSNH is currently waiting for its new final permit from EPA for cooling water withdrawal and discharge at Merrimack Station. The final permit is likely to require cooling water intake structures (like those constructed at Brayton Point Station in MA), at a price tag of $111 million or more, in addition to other protections for water quality and wildlife. Costs associated with new or impending air quality requirements would require additional compliance at significant cost, and these estimates don’t even take into account the risk posed by CLF’s ongoing Clean Air Act citizen suit.
  • Potential ratepayer costs from divestment of PSNH’s electricity generation would be minimal. If PSNH’s generating assets are sold, New Hampshire state law allows PSNH to recover from ratepayers costs that are not covered by sale proceeds (“stranded costs”). The report roughly estimates that potential energy service rate increases to cover stranded costs would be no more than 0.9 cents per kilowatt hour and possibly much less, given the high value of PSNH’s hydro generation units.

The report ultimately recommends that the PUC initiate a proceeding to solicit formal feedback on the report and its conclusions. This proceeding would likely result in firmer value estimates for PSNH’s assets, interim steps that could be accomplished through the PUC’s existing authority, and more detailed recommendations for legislation.

As CLF and the Empower NH coalition have repeatedly noted, promoting and advancing competition in New Hampshire’s energy service markets yields only benefits for the state’s electricity ratepayers in the face of PSNH’s “ever higher costs” to ratepayers. While the PUC and the Legislature decide how to implement the recommendations of this report, ratepayers should continue to vote with their feet and leave PSNH’s energy service.

Boston Green Mayoral Forum

Jun 10, 2013 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

Shanice Wallace is a Posse Scholar working at CLF as a summer intern. 

As more people are aware and involved in addressing environmental issues, the fight for a greener Boston becomes a shared Bostonian concern. Mayor Menino soon will be leaving Boston after 20 years. More than my entire lifetime!  During that time, he has done a lot to turn Beantown into Greentown, as he likes to say. Now, Boston has the opportunity to build on existing programs to reduce our environmental impact and become a greener city. Boston’s next mayor will have the opportunity to lead the next phase of Boston’s environmental revolution. The new mayor must take this opportunity to improve our neighborhoods by addressing climate change, clean energy and the environment.

Please save the date and plan to join Conservation Law Foundation and other environmental, clean energy, sustainability and innovation leaders for a Boston Mayoral Candidates Forum on Energy, the Environment and the Innovation Economy on July 9th at 12 pm at Suffolk University Law School. At this forum, the mayoral candidates will be given a chance explore a variety of topics related to community, development, jobs, sustainability, and livability in our city.



Vermont Gas Pipeline: A Bridge to Nowhere?

May 23, 2013 by  | Bio |  3 Comment »


Photo: DWeller88 @ flickr

It is important to build bridges, but we need to make sure they get us where we need to go.

The proposed expansion of the Vermont Gas pipeline may be more a minefield than a bridge, as one recent Vermont weekly  and one recent national energy blog reported.

The project will cut through valuable wetlands and farmland in Addison County. Future plans include crossing Lake Champlain, moving Vermont closer to gas supplies from fracking that is ongoing now in New York and Pennsylvania.

Proponents of the project, including Middlebury College and Vermont Gas advance an overly simplistic evaluation suggesting more natural gas is needed in Vermont because it is cheaper and cleaner than the oil and propane it will replace. Others suggest natural gas is a bridge to cleaner supplies that are in our future.

All bridges are not created equal. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel. The proposed gas pipeline will be in place for fifty to a hundred years. In that timeframe we need to solidly break our addiction to fossil fuels – including natural gas.

So what part of the project is in place to make sure natural gas is actually a valuable bridge and not a new addiction? Nothing. And that is sad.

We can do better than throw up our hands and blindly accept expensive and environmentally damaging new pipelines at a time when we should be moving away from fossil fuels.

Here are some ideas to start moving Vermont in a cleaner direction when it comes to new pipelines:

  1. Provide a more sophisticated evaluation that answers where this pipeline is taking us in fifty years.
  2. Stop providing unqualified support. If this is a cleaner solution, make sure it lives up to its promise. Sensitive and valuable environmental resources should be off the table.
  3. Meet climate goals by dramatically increasing efficiency, prohibiting supplies from fracking and limiting the use and lifespan of any new pipeline.

If we build bridges, let’s make sure they get us to a place we want to be.


Vermont Supreme Court Reviews Vermont Yankee

May 22, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Can the Vermont Public Service Board determine the meaning of its own orders? The answer would seem to be “Of Course!” But that is the question that Vermont Yankee’s owners are putting before the Vermont Supreme Court.

In two orders the Vermont Public Service Board issued a strong rebuke to Entergy.

The Board refused to amend its prior orders and confirmed that the conditions of Entergy’s permits remain intact. Those conditions include that Entergy will not operate Vermont Yankee past March 2012 without new approval from the Board.

Entergy brought this appeal to challenge those orders.

On Monday Conservation Law Foundation’s brief, filed jointly with New England Coalition and Vermont Public Interest Research Group challenged Entergy’s claims. Our brief noted:

Rather than comply with the conditions … and Board orders that were not appealed, Entergy instead seeks to ignore Vermont law and expand the application of this simple statute to sanction continued operation regardless of the current license requirements and prior commitments that were incorporated into the Board’s Order approving the sale of the plant to Entergy.

The State of Vermont also filed a brief opposing Entergy’s appeal.

It seems obvious that Entergy should be held to its commitments. We gave the Vermont Supreme Court some good arguments to encourage it to agree with us. Entergy will file a reply brief next month and a decision is expected within a year.

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