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

Apr 26, 2013 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

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

wall street

(photo credit: flickr/Mathew Knott)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

Getting Desperate: Northeast Utilities CEO Falsely Claims Wide Support for Northern Pass

Nov 15, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

This week, the developer of the Northern Pass transmission project, Northeast Utilities (NU), sunk to a new low. In a presentation at a utility industry conference, NU CEO Tom May stated that:

  • “[T]his project has the support of every environmental group in New England basically.”

This is unequivocally untrue. In fact, CLF is not aware of a single New England environmental group that supports the Northern Pass project as proposed. You don’t have to take our word for it: literally dozens of New England’s environmental organizations – regional, state, and local – have registered significant concerns with, or outright opposition to, the proposed project in public comments to the U.S. Department of Energy. May’s statement is all the more puzzling given the energy that NU has devoted to attacking the efforts of groups like CLF (e.g., here and here), the Appalachian Mountain Club (e.g., here), and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (e.g., here).

  • The regional electric grid operator, ISO-NE, has been a “big proponent of this project.

This is also inaccurate. Northern Pass is an “elective” transmission project that is not intended to address any electric grid needs identified by ISO-NE. As a result, ISO-NE is obligated to consider the project objectively alongside competing elective projects (of which there are several), and Northern Pass is not specifically endorsed in any of ISO-NE’s planning documents, such as ISO-NE’s recently released 10-year Regional System Plan for the New England electric grid. Because it is an elective project that ISO-NE didn’t ask for and doesn’t plan to rely on, ISO-NE’s primary role in reviewing Northern Pass will be to assure that it won’t have an adverse impact on the reliability of the grid, not to advocate for the project.

  • New Hampshire’s new governor-elect, Maggie Hassan, is “supportive of the project.”

Governor-elect Hassan’s website contains this statement to the contrary:

Maggie opposes the first Northern Pass proposal.  As a state senator, Maggie worked to pass a constitutional amendment to prohibit the use of eminent domain for private gain, and she opposes the use of eminent domain for this project.

Maggie believes that we must protect the scenic views of the North Country, which are vital to our tourism industry.  As Governor, she will ensure that, in accordance with the law, New Hampshire undertakes a rigorous review process of any proposal and provide significant opportunities for public voices to be heard.

Maggie hopes that the next proposal will address the concerns of the communities involved.  She believes that burying the lines would be a more appropriate approach, and also supports looking into home-grown energy sources, such as the new biomass plant under construction in Berlin.

Governor-elect Hassan has also expressed her support for Governor Lynch’s approach to the project: namely, that the directly affected communities must support the project before it moves forward. With almost all the communities on the record opposing the project (and no willingness on the part of Northern Pass’s developer to consider burial as an alternative to overhead lines), it’s impossible to characterize Governor-elect Hassan’s position as support for the project.

(May’s remarks on Northern Pass are at 21:00 – 25:30 in the webcast linked here.)

Since the Northern Pass project was announced more than two years ago, CLF has identified significant problems with the proposal, including the developer’s egregiously misleading marketing of the project’s environmental attributes and other supposed benefits. CLF has repeatedly emphasized, in the words of our President John Kassel, that “long-term supplies of hydro, wind and other sources of power – that respect and significantly benefit the landscape through which they are transmitted, support rather than undermine the development of New England’s own renewable energy resources, replace coal and other dirty fuels, keep the lights on at reasonable cost, and accurately account for their impacts – are what New England needs.” Thus far, the Northern Pass project, as proposed, meets none of these criteria, and therefore is not a project CLF can support.

Beyond our specific concerns, we’ve been fighting for some basic principles that should not be controversial, such as transparency, fairness, and especially honesty. Again and again, NU has unfortunately refused to abide by these principles, repeating discredited claims about the project’s emissions reductions and outdated accounts of other benefits, marginalizing the many stakeholders raising legitimate questions about the project, and employing bullying tactics against project opponents (for the most recent example, see here).

As we explained more than two months ago, Northern Pass still has no clear path forward. In concocting a story of broad-based political and stakeholder support, NU is – deliberately or recklessly – misleading its investors with plainly false information: an unacceptable breach of NU’s legal obligations as a public company and of investors’ trust. It is incumbent upon NU to correct the record immediately and to jettison its aggressively deceptive approach to securing approval of the Northern Pass project. The public deserves far, far better.

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.

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.

New Video: Real New Hampshire Voices Speak Out on the Northern Pass Proposal

Jun 29, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Northern Pass’s developer has a long track record of public statements attributing the deep New Hampshire opposition to the current proposal to the go-to developer bogeyman – “not in my backyard” obstructionism. Accusing critics of short-sighted “NIMBYism” is even part of Northern Pass’s expensive marketing campaign (which suffers from other deliberately false and misleading claims). Continuing this tradition, the CEO of the developer’s parent company recently derided opponents as “special interests.”

This is loaded, derogatory rhetoric, and exactly the wrong frame for having any constructive dialogue with the New Hampshire communities that face living with the project’s major new infrastructure, as I argued on NHPR last year. And on a personal level, after nearly a year and a half of advocacy on the Northern Pass project, I can say with certainty that the New Hampshire opponents of the current proposal don’t fit the caricature. Those with backyards that would be affected are indeed concerned about their homes, but also about the broader issues of whether the project will benefit their communities, New Hampshire, and the region. Like CLF, they aren’t seeing meaningful public benefits that would make the burdens of the project worth bearing.

Our colleagues at the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests recently produced a pair of videos that help bring to life some of New Hampshire’s very real concerns about the project, many of which are key parts of CLF’s Northern Pass advocacy.

In this video, Appalachian Mountain Club’s Susan Arnold explains our history of protecting the White Mountain National Forest and the problems with Northern Pass’s proposal to build new towers through this nationally treasured landscape:

(If impacts in the White Mountain National Forest are of interest to you, I’d also recommend a recently launched resource with lots of information on the details of Northern Pass’s current proposal and the unique permitting process that applies: ProtectWMNF.org.)

In this video, you’ll meet a Deerfield, NH family that would be directly affected by the project:

(In line with prior non-responses to criticism and strong-arm tactics, Northern Pass’s developer posted an odd rebuttal to this video on its website, attacking as “inaccurate” certain general statements and images showing towers close to the family’s house. Leaving aside that accuracy in communications hasn’t been its own priority, the developer has released no detailed mile-by-mile design of the project to back up its post, nor does it deny that its representatives told the family that towers could be built very close to their home. And if you watch the video, it’s clear that the “rebuttal” is more about trying to discredit the Forest Society than providing a meaningful response to the video’s substance.)

From the families who live along the proposed route, to the small businesspeople in the state’s tourist economy who are concerned about the effect of the project on their livelihoods and communities, to the New Hampshire residents and groups questioning the wisdom of erecting massive new towers through treasured landscapes like the White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire’s many critical voices are focused on real, legitimate concerns about the impacts of Northern Pass on our state and beyond. We will not be marginalized, bullied, or deterred as we raise these issues in public forums and in the federal and state permitting processes to come.

CLF was not involved in the production or content of the videos above. They are posted here with the permission of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.

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.

New Study: Energy Market Changes Undermine Economic Case for Northern Pass

Jun 14, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

photo credit: flickr/brianjmatis

This week, the New England Power Generators Association (the trade group for most of the region’s power plant companies, also known as NEPGA) released a new study analyzing the potential effect of the Northern Pass project on New England’s energy market – the first independent study addressing this issue. More than two years after the deeply flawed energy study that Northern Pass’s developer commissioned and has cited unrelentingly since, NEPGA’s study is an important, credible contribution to the public discussion surrounding the Northern Pass project.

The new study’s conclusion: the supposed energy benefits of the project – that it will lower the region’s energy costs and diversify the region’s power supply – won’t materialize. The study also shows that the economic merits of the current proposal are much weaker today than they were when the proposal was formulated two years ago, due to reductions in the cost of natural gas.

You can read NEPGA’s press release about the study (PDF) here and the full study (PDF) here. You’ll find press coverage of the study in the Union Leader here, in the Concord Monitor here, on WMUR-TV here, and on New Hampshire Public Radio here.

A few key takeaways:

  • The study’s finding that natural gas prices have declined is not news to Hydro-Québec or to Northern Pass’s developer, which is trumpeting new domestic natural gas supplies as a “game-changer.” What this means, in practical terms, is that the project will not put much downward pressure on the already-low regional market price of power. That’s a problem for Northern Pass: reducing regional energy costs is at the heart of the Northern Pass sales pitch. (As we’ve pointed out before, this “benefit” in fact perversely would put upward pressure on – rather than lower – the rates that most New Hampshire consumers pay.)
  • With the economics of the project so tenuous, there is a clear risk that the proponents will seek to qualify Northern Pass power for the benefits afforded to new renewable energy sources under state clean energy laws, a legal change that would unfairly undermine the market for renewable energy development in New England. (The risk that hydropower imports will need subsidies to cover new transmission costs has also recently been cited by critics of the Champlain Hudson Power Express project in New York.) If it’s true, as proponents insist, that Northern Pass doesn’t need subsidies, New England should accept nothing less than a binding legal commitment from Hydro-Québec and Northern Pass’s developer not to seek or accept them.
  • NEPGA’s study suggests that Northern Pass would shift Québec hydropower exports from New York and Ontario to New England. This effect may completely offset the supposed carbon emissions reductions from Northern Pass (which are inherently dubious for other reasons) because it is extremely likely that New York or Ontario would ramp up natural gas power plants to make up any deficit. In this regard, the study shows yet again that a rigorous big-picture regional analysis – of the kind that could be provided in the comprehensive regional assessment of our energy needs and the role, if any, for more Canadian imports that CLF and others have sought and Northern Pass’s developer has opposed – is essential to making a well-informed decision on a proposal like Northern Pass.
  • The developer’s hair-trigger response – to question the credibility of the sponsors of the study and not the study’s actual findings, a classic Bulverism – speaks volumes. At every turn, the developer has refused to acknowledge or address the problems with its current proposal, even in the face of unequivocal facts that debunk the supposed benefits. Sadly, we can expect the potential rollout of the “new route” for a piece of the project later this summer to follow a similar script.

Above all, NEPGA’s new study underscores that that no one should rely on the stale, incomplete, and misleading information that Northern Pass’s developer is using to sell the project to the public and to government agencies. We need a much deeper, clear-eyed understanding of what Northern Pass would mean for the region’s energy consumers, New Hampshire communities, and the environment on both sides of the border.

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.

Page 1 of 3123