How New Hampshire Can Stay Above Water with PSNH’s Dirty Coal Plants Sinking Fast

Feb 7, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

How are PSNH’s coal plants like Mark Sanchez? (photo credit: flickr/TexKap)

Earlier this week, the Concord Monitor published a must-read editorial addressing PSNH’s future. Much like an earlier widely-printed op-ed on the subject, the editorial correctly describes the PSNH death spiral of escalating costs, fleeing customers, and dirty inefficient power plants kept alive by massive ratepayer subsidies.

The editorial also points out one key reason why PSNH’s argument that its plants are an insurance policy against high natural gas prices is increasingly off the mark: it ignores the damage that those plants do to the climate and to the environment. In 2012, despite not operating for much of the year, PSNH’s plants were nonetheless collectively the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in New Hampshire.

As time goes on, PSNH’s “insurance policy” argument only gets more specious. Relying on inflexible power plants that take many hours to start up and shut down is diametrically at odds with the dynamic and advanced electric grid that will help New England move toward a clean energy future and address concerns around the region’s increasing use of natural gas. We know what we need to do: the region needs to reduce energy demand through cost-effective energy efficiency investments, to deploy clean renewable technologies like wind that displace fossil fuel use, and to optimize the rules of the wholesale electric market to ensure smooth operation of the grid. Indeed, regional grid operator ISO New England’s recent market design efforts will almost certainly make poor-performing, inflexible power plants like PSNH’s less competitive, not more.

Propping up outdated physical assets – with high fixed maintenance costs – in the hopes that they will someday become competitive again is not “insurance.” It’s the kind of backward thinking that no competent manager or economist would endorse.

As a matter of policy, PSNH’s strategy enacts the classic economic mistake of “throwing good money after bad” by placing too much emphasis on “sunk costs,” an unfortunately common problem that James Surowiecki recently discussed in The New Yorker in describing the irrationality of sports teams’ commitments to ineffective players, like the Jets’ Mark Sanchez, after years of poor performance and bloated salaries.

At least sports teams suffer the consequences of their choices – they lose. With guaranteed profit and regulator-approved rates to recover its costs, PSNH and its parent Northeast Utilities have continued to win, even after a decade or more of terrible investment decisions. Unless of course PSNH can be made to pay for the mess it has created.

The key paragraph of the Concord Monitor’s editorial argues precisely this same point:

[L]awmakers must ensure that the lion’s share of the loss is incurred by investors in PSNH’s parent company, Northeast Utilities, not by New Hampshire ratepayers. That includes the huge cost of the mercury scrubber. It was investors, after all, who gambled that it made sense to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to keep an old coal plant running. They could have said no. So it’s investors who should lose if that gamble doesn’t pay off.

As PSNH looks for opportunities to spread its costs to the New Hampshire businesses and households that have escaped PSNH’s high rates, this is timely advice for New Hampshire policymakers. They should heed it.

Super Bowl Outage and Vermont Yankee

Feb 5, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Keeping the lights on shouldn’t be this difficult. The response by Entergy to the outage at the Super Bowl is very reminiscent of the responses by Entergy to the many problems at its Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. It boils down to a piece of equipment failed and the power went out. A repeated problem at Vermont Yankee has been equipment failures – from cooling tower collapses to leaking pipes.

Sure problems happen, but c’mon. Enough already. The problem is that the same company that can’t keep the lights on for the Super Bowl is also challenged to keep its nuclear fleet running smoothly.

Even without news of the Super Bowl outage, UBS issued another report  about the shaky financial future of Vermont Yankee. The report states:

We continue to believe Entergy is likely to decommission at least one of its units, such as Vermont Yankee, in 2013. We anticipate the process of decommissioning will become of greater importance to Entergy shareholders, as concerns around shareholder-financed contributions to decommissioning funds continue to garner concern.”

The financial outlook looks bleak. Meanwhile, next week hearings begin at the Vermont Public Service Board about Vermont Yankee’s future. Entergy has money to keep four law firms employed working on the case. That money would be better spent closing the plant and cleaning up the site.

Tar Sands in Vermont? No Way!

Jan 29, 2013 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

photo courtesy of someones.life @ flickr.com

I joined with residents of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom today and fellow environmental colleagues to protect Vermont from the devastation of tar sands oil.

We filed a legal action to ensure Vermonters have a say over any proposal to move tar sands through Vermont. See press release here.

The request asks that the increasingly imminent proposal to move tar sands through an existing Northeast Kingdom pipeline be subject to state land use (Act 250) review. See request here.

Tar sands oil poses unique risks to the many natural treasures of the Northeast Kingdom and also imposes extreme climate change risks.

Tar sands oil is a gritty tar-like substance that produces far more emissions than conventional oil. The vastness of the tar sands reserves in Western Canada means that using tar sands oil delays efforts to move towards cleaner energy supplies, and sends us backwards on climate change.

As James Hansen, a leading climate scientist has said, the exploitation of tar sands on mass will be, “game over” for the climate.

Already there are requests to move tar sands east from Alberta to Montreal. The only realistic way to move it beyond Montreal to the deep ports it needs for transportation is through the Portland Montreal Pipeline which passes through Vermont.

There has already been one spill in this old pipeline in Vermont. A spill of tar sands oil – which is much harder to clean up – would be devastating.

Our filing requests that any plans to use the pipeline for tar sands oil be reviewed though Vermont’s land use development law – Act 250 – to protect our land, water and air resources threatened by this dirty fuel .

The Time is Right for Affordable Heat

Jan 17, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Vermont is poised to take a big bite out of the high cost and pollution of heating our homes and businesses. Slashing a full one-quarter of both lies within our reach.

Over the past decade, the cost Vermonters pay for staying warm has more than doubled. This strains our pocketbooks, our environment, our health and our security. Watching our dollars go up in smoke drains our economy.

What can we do? Building on the enormous success of our electric efficiency efforts, we can improve the heating efficiency of our homes and businesses in a similar manner. While some efforts have begun, most of the savings opportunity remains on the table. Throughout Vermont, heating efficiency has saved the average homeowner about $1,000 a year.  (See a recent editorial here).

A new report of Vermont’s Thermal Efficiency Task Force provides a strong roadmap for jumpstarting heating efficiency and renewable heat for our homes and businesses. The Task Force recommendations show how Vermont can stretch its heating dollars farther and provide over $1.4 billion in direct savings. That’s $1.4 billion that is not going up in smoke, literally leaking out of our homes and businesses.

Affordable heat means lowering bills. Every year Vermont struggles to fund low income heating assistance (LIHEAP). With affordable heat, Vermont can reduce the funds needed and can use LIHEAP dollars to help more Vermonters. Cutting fuel use by one-quarter means that for every four homes that are weatherized, help is available for one additional family.

Affordable heat reduces pollution. Every gallon of fossil fuel we don’t burn means less pollution. Whether we are adding solar to our roofs or insulating/weatherizing our homes we leave a lasting positive legacy for our children by taking seriously our responsibility to tackle climate change and reduce pollution.

The long and short of it is that Vermont — and Vermonters — can’t afford to keep wasting energy, wasting money and wasting clean air. Vermont’s commitment to affordable heat is our ticket to more comfortable homes and businesses, and a thriving and affordable clean energy economy.

The Dicey Economics of Hosting a Nuclear Plant

Jan 16, 2013 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

photo courtesy of topher76@flickr.com

This past week has shown Vermont first-hand the high cost of nuclear power. Hosting a plant in your state is clearly a high-stakes bargain.

Vermont went to Court in Manhattan this week before a three judge panel at the United States Court of Appeals. (Read more here and here). It had fifteen minutes for its lawyer to explain to the judges why the decision of the District Court blocking the actions of the Vermont Legislature should be reversed. A tough task.

With clarity and nimbleness, Vermont proved it was up to the task. Its lawyer, Attorney David Frederick, an experienced appellate lawyer who argued a case last week before the United States Supreme Court, explained that Vermont has every right to determine Vermont Yankee’s fate. And doing so does not impinge on the federal government’s oversight of radiological issues.

In a nutshell, there were three points.

First the United States Supreme Court case from 1983 that let stand a California law enacting a moratorium on nuclear plants would allow the Vermont law. If a state can ban all nuclear plants, it can certainly allow the Legislature to determine the fate of one plant.

Second, the lease on Vermont Yankee expired and like a landlord, Vermont can simply refuse to renew the lease. Period. Any tenant knows this. Vermont is hosting this plant and can say it wants the property used for another purpose.

Third, Vermont has huge skin in the game and economic exposure from Vermont Yankee. If Entergy, the owner of Vermont Yankee, goes bankrupt or simply chooses to walk away, Vermonters are left holding the bag for what Conservation Law Foundation has described as the nuclear equivalent of junk car in its backyard. This possibility is more likely following recent reports that Vermont Yankee is not pulling its weight and that Entergy would be better off closing the plant.

The stakes are high. Apart from hosting this plant, Entergy is seeking to recoup over $4 million in legal fees, and now has four law firms working to push every legal angle possible. Times change. When Vermont first approved the Vermont Yankee facility in the 1970s, there was a hearing for three days before the Vermont Public Service Board. Clearly nuclear power and hosting plants is more expensive and time consuming than ever.

Vermont is right to begin extracting itself from this nuclear legacy. Unfortunately, that is proving to be not so easy.

You Say ‘Food Waste,’ I Say ‘Renewable Energy’: New DEP Regs Create Pathway for Anaerobic Digestion

Jan 11, 2013 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

Burying our garbage in landfills is a waste of resources, but it’s also a convenient way to get rid of stuff we don’t need or want. If there were clear alternatives to trashing our resources, would we use them? The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) believes the answer is yes.

The DEP has finalized new rules that provide a permitting pathway for operations that process source separated materials – stuff like food waste or recyclable plastics that are not mixed with other wastes in the general trash stream. Source separated materials are distinguished from “waste”, so qualifying facilities will not be permitted as solid waste facilities. Previously a facility that sought to collect discarded material for recycling or some other reuse was considered a solid waste facility. This created barriers to the productive use of materials like food waste. The new regulations are a good step toward better management of our discarded materials.

Under the new rules, finalized November 23, DEP has created three size-based categories:

  1. Small facilities (no permit required)
  2. General permit facilities (certain activities permitted by-right)
  3. Facilities that will require a new Recycling, Composting, and Conversion (RCC) permit



The good news is that these rules create a permitting pathway for anaerobic digestion (AD) facilities. AD is a process in which organic material, like food waste, is processed in an airtight container to create a gas similar to natural gas (high in methane). AD facilities can use the gas to fuel energy generators to create electricity and heat that can be used onsite or sold in the energy market.

AD facilities, if properly sited and appropriately operated, offer a win-win by managing food waste and generating a renewable gas for energy production. Rather than putting our food waste into a landfill where it does more harm than good, the energy in the food can be efficiency recovered for productive use.

“But what about composting?” you may be asking. DEP’s goals, as stated in the current draft Solid Waste Master Plan, include diverting 350,000 tons of organic waste per year from landfills. Some of this will be accomplished by AD facilities, but some diversion will be accomplished by composting. The new rules clarify which operations are permitted by DEP and which are permitted by the Department of Agricultural Resources (DAR).

Whether we create high quality fertilizers and soil amendments through composting, or energy and fertilizer through AD, we will be diverting organic material from landfill disposal. DEP’s new rules are a step in the right direction to better manage our resources for economic advantage and environmental gain.

Vermont Yankee – Worth More Dead than Alive

Jan 2, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Photo courtesy of Andy Hares @ flickr.com

The financial world is waking up to what a drag Vermont Yankee really is. The tired, old and leaking nuclear plant in Vermont is not carrying its weight. Financial analysts report that Vermont Yankee is economically vulnerable and a retirement announcement would boost stock prices for its parent, Entergy.

You can read the UBS Investment Research report “Re-assessing Cash Flows from the Nukes” here. It states:

 

“Notably, we believe both its NY Fitzpatrick and Vermont Yankee plants are at risk of retirement given their small size; while potentially negative to sentiment, an announcement to retire the units would likely drive positive FCF revisions.”

Clearly it is past time to close this plant.

Analysts today dropped the projected price target for Entergy’s stock. They see high debt and little cash coming in. Not good news for any investment.

It is good the financial world is waking up to what Vermonters have known for years. Vermont Yankee is not a good deal. It hasn’t been for years. It is expensive and financially risky. Conservation Law Foundation submitted testimony to the Public Service Board on the lousy economics of allowing Vermont Yankee to continue to operate. It does not have enough money for decommissioning, low energy prices mean it is not making money and any problems would saddle Vermont with big problems. You can read CLF’s testimony here.

These are not problems we need. Nuclear power was once touted as too cheap to meter. That has never been true. Now it is too expensive to even keep operating. Thank goodness financial markets are waking up to this fact.

This Holiday, New Hampshire Will Buy a $128 Million Lump of Coal

Dec 18, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

photo credit: TimothyJ/flickr

Today, the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission takes up PSNH’s request to charge its customers 9.54 cents per kilowatt hour for electric energy service in 2013. In a op-ed published this week, long-time CLF friends Ken Colburn and Rick Russman explain why New Hampshire’s crisis of escalating PSNH rates – and how New Hampshire policymakers resolve it – may be the defining economic issue for New Hampshire’s new class of leaders next year.

With PSNH’s rates to be by far the highest in the state and almost three cents higher than those of its sister utility NSTAR in Massachusetts, New Hampshire is dealing with an untenable situation: small businesses and residents are subsidizing PSNH’s above-market costs to operate and maintain dirty, inefficient, and uneconomic coal plants, to the tune of $128 million.* The average residential customer will pay $212 extra in 2013 for the dirtiest energy in the region.

To put $128 million in perspective, in 2011 New Hampshire invested less than a seventh of that amount, a mere $17.6 million, in electric energy efficiency programs – an energy solution that is lowering rates, reducing pollution, avoiding expensive new transmission projects, and creating jobs.

New Hampshire energy users are in effect giving this money away to keep alive New Hampshire’s biggest sources of toxic and greenhouse gas pollution (even though PSNH projects they will only operate at around 25% of their capacity in 2013) and to pay dividends to PSNH’s owner, New England mega-utility Northeast Utilities. And the situation will only get worse with time as PSNH customers join the thousands who have already picked an alternative energy supplier, leaving a shrinking base of customers to bear the heavy costs of PSNH’s coal fleet. (If you’re still a PSNH customer, you should definitely make the switch before the new year begins and PSNH’s new rates kick in.)

The blame for this economic and environmental travesty lies squarely with PSNH’s self-serving failure to plan for the future.

Yet PSNH is already trying to make the case that it needs a “fix” from the New Hampshire legislature to protect its coal plants, its 10% profit margin guarantee, and its protection from cleaner, cheaper competition. What’s even more bizarre – and indicative of its refusal to approach these issues honestly – is that PSNH is pinning its skyrocketing rates on the very factors that have reduced electric rates for everyone else in New England – namely, investments in energy efficiency and environmental protection and the increasing use of natural gas and competitive renewable energy sources. PSNH’s foolhardy but lucrative investments in its outdated power plants – for which it fought tooth and nail over the last decade – are the culprit, not environmental requirements that apply to all power plants in New Hampshire and across the region.

Please take a moment to read the op-ed and share widely with friends, neighbors, and especially your new representatives in Concord. For the good of the state’s economic and environmental health, they need to hear from you!

*  The math: PSNH customers will pay a 2.85 cent “premium” for every kilowatt hour over and above PSNH affiliate NSTAR’s market-based rates, and PSNH is projecting that it will sell more than 4 billion kilowatt hours of power to its remaining customers in 2013. The average household in New Hampshire uses 7,428 kilowatt hours per year.

PSNH's Merrimack Station

Distributed Generation Standard Contracts Act: A Success in Three Parts

Dec 13, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

On June 26, 2011, Governor Chafee signed into law the “Distributed Generation Standard Contracts Act.”  The bill had passed both houses of the General Assembly unanimously. The “distributed generation” in the title of the law refers to small, local renewable energy projects.

The new law was designed to do three things: (1) increase the number of small renewable energy projects that are built in Rhode Island; by (2) making it easier, quicker, and cheaper for developers of these projects to get contracts to sell their electricity to Rhode Island’s dominant utility, National Grid; and (3) get those renewable energy projects distributed into more of Rhode Island’s cities and towns.

Not every law passed by the General Assembly works out the way it was meant to, but the Distributed Generation Standard Contracts Act has been phenomenally successful in accomplishing each of its three goals.

Previous renewable energy laws in Rhode Island have worked the way they were intended: to get National Grid to buy more and more of its electricity each year from clean, renewable energy sources. But Rhode Island’s previous renewable energy laws also had a significant flaw: they worked very well for big projects, like Deepwater Wind’s proposed offshore wind farm, but they worked less well for small projects (like a town that wants to set up a single wind turbine at its town hall, as Portsmouth did). That is because under the prior laws, developers would have to hire a small army of lawyers to negotiate an excruciatingly long, detailed contract with Grid, setting forth everything from the price of the electricity to delivery schedule. (For example, the contract that Deepwater filed with the Public Utilities Commission on December 10, 2009 ran 62 pages in length!)  Hiring lawyers to negotiate a 62-page contract was just too time-consuming and expensive for a developer who had a small project.

The new law fixed that problem. As the name of the law suggests, it provided for a “standard contract” for developers of small projects. The standard contract was short, written in plain English, and easy to understand. In addition, the law provided for a standard price to be paid, and established a mechanism for setting a fair price for each different type of project – wind, solar, and so forth. These prices were designed to be high enough to get projects actually built, but low enough to protect electricity rate-payers.

And that is exactly how the new law has worked. In the 15 months since the bill was signed into law, National Grid has held three separate sign-up periods. To date, 18 separate projects have been signed up.  Each of these 18 separate projects will be built right here in Rhode Island. Thus, Rhode Islanders will directly enjoy the environmental and economic-development benefits of these projects. The main purpose of the new law, to get more local renewable energy projects built, has been accomplished – in spades.

The developer of each of these 18 projects got a simple, standard contract to sign, and will receive a set price for the electricity produced.  Thus, another one of the law’s purposes has been accomplished.

The projects themselves are located in Providence, East Providence, Portsmouth, Lincoln, Westerly, Bristol, West Greenwich, East Greenwich, Hopkinton, Middletown, Cumberland, North Kingstown, North Smithfield, and West Warwick.  This geographical distribution of new renewable energy projects was a third purpose of the law.

Rhode Island’s new Distributed Generation Standard Contracts Act has been so successful that it is becoming a model for the rest of the country. Renewable energy advocates in New York and Iowa are hoping to replicate the Rhode Island law in their states. The California Public Utilities Commission has circulated the Rhode Island law to its in-house legal staff. A group of Oregon legislators is poised to introduce a bill in the coming legislative session modeled after the successful Rhode Island law.

The Distributed Generation Standard Contracts Act is a classic win-win. It addresses the problem of climate change by reducing the carbon emissions that cause climate change. And it helps the Rhode Island economy by facilitating local development of renewable energy projects.

This is a law that Rhode Islanders can be proud of. Its enactment reflects well on our legislators (who passed it unanimously) and on Governor Chafee (who signed it into law). The law has been administered carefully and diligently by our Office of Energy Resources. And National Grid, which receives an economic incentive when projects start producing power, has worked conscientiously with developers to help developers succeed.

July 2015 Campaign Popup - A - with credit

×