Massachusetts Can’t Rely on the Northern Pass Proposal as a Short-Term Climate Solution

May 4, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Amid new scrutiny, it’s time for Massachusetts to reckon with the elephant in its climate plan (photo credit: flickr/David Blackwell)

The 5 million ton elephant in Massachusetts’s nation-leading climate action plan – the oversold and overstated greenhouse gas emissions reductions from new imports of Canadian hydropower comprising more than 20% of the state’s goal – is too big to ignore. That’s why it’s encouraging that the plan’s misplaced reliance on the Northern Pass transmission project is receiving new scrutiny.

Last December, CLF identified a significant problem with Massachusetts’s “Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2020”: it adopted and relied on Northern Pass’s sales pitch that the project will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 5 million tons annually and then claimed all those emissions reductions for Massachusetts. After examining the basis for the 5 million ton figure, we concluded that – no way around it – the figure was just wrong; it was calculated on the false assumption – belied by Hydro-Québec’s own data – that imported hydropower has no greenhouse gas emissions.  The way Massachusetts was relying on Northern Pass was dubious for other reasons, including the unfairness of Massachusetts claiming all the benefits of a project that will not be located in the state and the fact that there is no concrete commitment regarding how much Northern Pass power Massachusetts electric customers will actually receive.

In February, the problem was confirmed in a technical report (PDF) commissioned by CLF and authored by Synapse Energy Economics, which found that hydropower facilities, especially new projects being built in Québec to supply new imports into New England, have substantial greenhouse emissions – emissions that for several years after construction can be comparable to the natural gas power that Northern Pass would replace.

Last month, Massachusetts think-tank MassINC released an independent analysis (PDF) of Massachusetts’s progress in meeting its ambitious emissions reduction goal – 25% below 1990 levels by the year 2020. The conclusion: Massachusetts is making great strides in some areas, but needs to redouble its efforts if it intends to achieve the goal. One of the biggest uncertainties: the Massachusetts climate plan’s reliance on new imports of Canadian hydropower through Northern Pass.

MassINC’s new report signals, as CLF has argued, that Massachusetts must look elsewhere to secure sufficient emissions reductions by 2020. The MassINC report makes the critical point that it is not up to Massachusetts whether the Northern Pass project is built – and there are many reasons to doubt that it ever will be – not the least of which are the extensive permitting processes and the committed and well-founded community opposition that the project must overcome. Citing Synapse’s findings on the greenhouse gas emissions of hydropower and the higher emissions associated with new hydropower facilities, the MassINC report suggests that any reliance on new imports as an emissions reduction strategy requires a credible, scientifically sound accounting of the targeted reductions, including whether and to what extent the power will come from new hydropower projects. Massachusetts needs to temper its enthusiasm for additional hydropower imports with the same scientific rigor and attention to detail reflected in the Patrick administration’s proposed regulations for biomass power.

The MassINC report is making waves, earning the lead, front page story recently in the Boston Sunday Globe and media coverage throughout the state. Consistent with the MassINC report, CLF does not rule out the possibility that new hydropower imports – if they have minimal environmental and community impacts on both sides of the border, avoid undermining local renewable and energy efficiency, displace our dirtiest power, and provide verifiable emissions reductions – could play a constructive role in a cleaner energy future for the region, particularly when considered over the long term.

But it’s time for the Patrick administration to reconsider its unfounded confidence that Northern Pass is some kind of clean energy panacea that will deliver a fifth of all needed emissions reductions by 2020. The science is clear: it’s not.

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.

Northern Pass Developers Refuse to Face Facts about Hydropower Emissions

Apr 4, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

The American developers of the Northern Pass project are misleading the public about the project’s most touted environmental benefit (without which they “wouldn’t be doing this”): reducing New England’s greenhouse gas emissions. Presented with clear, unambiguous evidence that the current proposal would not meaningfully reduce emissions and that their public relations campaign is trading in falsehoods, the developers have done nothing to correct the record or provided any substantive response to the evidence.

In mid-February, CLF released a report on the science regarding large-scale hydropower’s emissions of greenhouse gases, the pollutants that are driving climate change. The conclusion: large-scale hydropower projects, especially new facilities, have substantial greenhouse gas emissions that, in their first years of operation, are equivalent to emissions from modern natural gas power plants.

This conclusion means that the proposed Northern Pass project, which would import up to 1,200 megawatts of new Canadian hydropower into New England and displace power from domestic natural gas plants, would not meaningfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as the developers are claiming.  CLF’s report also demonstrated that the assumption at the heart of the developers’ claim that the Northern Pass project would reduce emissions by 5 million tons per year – that Canadian hydropower has no greenhouse gas emissions – is unequivocally false.

CLF sent a copy of the hydropower emissions report to Northern Pass Transmission LLC (NPT). In our transmittal letter, we made clear that the science summarized in the report (some of which was included in NPT’s own regulatory filings) clearly contradicted NPT’s marketing claims and urged NPT to:

  • correct the regulatory and public record by retracting and withdrawing all NPT prior statements that hydropower results in no emissions of greenhouse gases and that the Project will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by any specific amount, and
  • refrain from making any claims regarding carbon dioxide emissions reductions associated with the Project unless and until those reductions are substantiated in a new technical analysis subject to public and permitting agency review.

To date, NPT has taken neither step. The false “no emissions” canard and the unsupported claim of 5 million tons of annual emissions reductions from the project are still prominent fixtures at NPT’s MyNewHampshire.com:

"No greenhouse gases" (source: http://www.northernpass.us/pdf/ads/Jack.pdf)

NPT spokesman Martin Murray did post a non-responsive comment on CLF’s website, to which I responded in detail here. On its own website, NPT then heralded a Hydro-Québec press release responding to the report, and I explained here why the press release neither reflected a close reading of the report nor challenged the report’s fundamental conclusions but, instead, underscored Hydro-Québec’s position that the major promise of new hydropower imports was as a long-term replacement for dirty, costly coal power plants like New Hampshire’s own Merrimack and Schiller Stations – not natural gas.

Where do NPT’s non-responses leave us? Unfortunately, NPT seems poised to continue on with its false and misleading public relations campaign and has shown no interest in an open, honest debate. CLF will continue to use all the tools at our disposal to ensure that the public and decision-makers are fully aware of all the issues associated with the Northern Pass proposal. 

You can support our work by becoming a CLF member and also by telling the permitting agency now reviewing the Northern Pass proposal to consider hydropower’s greenhouse gas emissions – and all the other impacts of Northern Pass power in Canada – as part of the agency’s environmental review – click here to take action.

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/northernpass), and take a look at our prior Northern Pass posts on CLF Scoop.

Northern Pass Response to Hydropower Emissions Research Rings Hollow

Feb 23, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

(photo credit: flickr/massdistraction)

We appreciate Northern Pass spokesman Martin Murray’s comment on my prior post regarding recent research on the greenhouse gas emissions of hydropower and the implications for the Northern Pass project. We are also grateful for Hydro-Québec environment advisor Dr. Alain Tremblay’s comment, to which I responded here.

Although we welcome the feedback and dialogue, we are discouraged that Mr. Murray’s comment addresses none of the substantive points raised by the Synapse report (PDF) or my post discussing the report. We are disappointed as well that the comment dismisses the fundamental need identified by the Synapse report – an honest and credible accounting for the effect of new imports on overall greenhouse gas emissions. Instead of working on providing such an accounting and engaging in a real dialogue about this issue, Northern Pass Transmission LLC (NPT) has invested heavily in advertising for the Northern Pass project, including the promotion of an emissions reductions figure reliant on new reservoirs that is based on an erroneous zero-emissions assumption. That assumption is contradicted by the Synapse report and Hydro-Québec’s own research, and the marketing claims on this issue (see, for example, here) are thus false and misleading and should be withdrawn immediately, as we have requested in a separate communication to NPT.

The citation to the Climate Action Plan sidesteps the merits of the emissions reduction issue entirely:

  • First, the Task Force did not have the information in the Synapse report at its disposal in making its recommendations.
  • Second, the Climate Action Plan contains important qualifications on its import recommendation that NPT does not acknowledge.  The recommendation itself contains the proviso that new imports should be pursued “with consideration for the broader environmental impacts of the power sources as well as the impacts that this imported power would have on the development of in‐state renewable resources.” That consideration is the work CLF believe needs to happen but has not.  In this regard, NPT’s dismissal of all questions or “challenges” on these issues is flatly inconsistent with the Climate Action Plan’s recommendation.
  • Third, the Climate Action Plan appendix discussing the recommendation (PDF) states that “[t]he benefits to electric customers would be determined by the specific terms of any purchased power agreement and  the reductions to New England fossil fuel generation which would be subject to state regulatory  review and confirmation at the time of any filings for state approval.” (p. 29) In other words, the economic and environmental benefits from imports depend on the details of the proposal, specifically the terms and what generation is displaced. Yet the current proposal includes no Power Purchase Agreement that would benefit PSNH’s own energy consumers, assumes that any future power purchase agreement will be for only a small amount of power, and provides no guarantee or commitment that the imported power will reduce emissions in a meaningful way. The Synapse report directly refutes the only analysis of emissions reductions that NPT has made publicly available. The Climate Action Plan underscores the fundamental need for imports to provide real environmental and economic benefits for New Hampshire, and the current proposal on the table does virtually nothing to meet that need.
  • Fourth, unlike all other recommendations in the Plan, enabling importation of Canadian hydro received a number of “no” votes from the Task Force, “due to concerns over the potential environmental impacts of the imported power and the effect imported power might have on development of in-state renewable resources.” Public comments  from a number of stakeholders, including CLF, questioned the entire recommendation based on these concerns. (Comments are summarized at pp. 246-258 of this PDF.) There was a debate then, and that debate should continue now, based on well-sourced and credible information like the Synapse report.

We agree that there is no one single solution to the climate challenge. But any serious effort to confront climate change in New Hampshire must also confront the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state – PSNH’s aging, inefficient, and uneconomic fossil fuel power plants. As Dr. Tremblay of Hydro-Québec admitted, in comments that NPT is now approvingly citing, “the major environmental challenge facing North America is to replace coal to generate power….” CLF couldn’t agree more.

It seems NPT and its affiliates do not agree with Dr. Tremblay. Importing an additional 1,200 megawatts of hydropower from Canada will not help move New England toward a clean energy future if, as the current proposal is structured and as PSNH has repeatedly claimed, imports would only displace relatively clean natural gas generation, and not the power plants that are worst for the climate, like PSNH’s coal-fired units at Merrimack and Schiller Stations.

With Northern Pass proponent PSNH fighting tooth and nail to protect its guaranteed ratepayer subsidy to keep running those units, the supposed commitment of Northern Pass’s developers to reducing greenhouse gas emissions appears to be a textbook example of a greenwash. Given the emissions data presented in the Synapse report, it is clear to CLF that, if Northern Pass proceeds as proposed, our region will forfeit a major opportunity for meaningful action to confront climate change.

Latest Research: Northern Pass Worse for the Climate than Advertised

Feb 14, 2012 by  | Bio |  10 Comment »

Hydro-Québec hydroelectric projects recently commissioned or under construction (Source: Quebec Ministry of Natural Resources and Wildlife)

Reducing the region’s emissions of greenhouse gases is supposedly the Northern Pass project’s marquee public benefit, its raison d’être as they say in Québec. But would the Northern Pass project do the job?

The answer appears to be: probably not any time soon. Today, CLF is releasing a ground-breaking new technical report regarding the greenhouse gas emissions of Canadian hydropower. The conclusions of the report show that large-scale hydropower, especially new reservoirs, is worse for the climate than Northern Pass’s developers are claiming, with substantial greenhouse gas emissions that are comparable to those of modern natural gas-fired power plants. The current Northern Pass proposal substitutes hydropower for natural gas in New England’s energy mix, meaning that the project won’t reduce emissions by much if any, especially in the near term.

Authored by Synapse Energy Economics, the technical report released today, Hydropower Greenhouse Gas Emissions: State of the Research, is an independent survey of the recent science regarding the greenhouse gas emissions of hydropower. The science is clear that the reservoirs behind hydropower dams emit greenhouse gases, relative to the forests and wetlands they flood (which often take greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere). Overall, reservoirs in Québec emit more greenhouse gases over the course of their lives than renewables like wind, solar, and run of river hydropower.

A crucial finding of the report concerns new reservoirs. In the first several years after a reservoir is dammed, large amounts of newly inundated organic material decompose, emitting carbon dioxide that diffuses through the water into the atmosphere. As a result, a reservoir’s net emissions in its early years are very high – starting out even higher than emissions from a natural gas power plant per unit of power generated. This effect is evident in recent, rigorous analyses by several teams of scientists, based on data collected at Hydro-Québec’s Eastmain 1 reservoir in northern Québec. This reservoir is the very same project that Northeast Utilities’ CFO testified under oath last year would be the primary, if not exclusive, source of Northern Pass’s power. Even when their emissions are projected over their lifetimes, newly flooded Canadian reservoirs may emit nearly two-thirds of the greenhouse gases emitted by natural gas power plants. By contrast, reservoirs emit only about 20% of the greenhouse gases emitted by typical coal-fired power plants.

This conclusion is the death knell for Northern Pass Transmission, LLC’s (NPT) claim that the current Northern Pass proposal would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 5 million tons. We explained the claim’s key flaw – the report on which it is based erroneously assumes that hydropower has no greenhouse gas emissions – back in August. In light of today’s report, CLF is calling on NPT and its partners NU, NSTAR, and PSNH to stop citing that erroneous number and to withdraw all marketing materials for the Northern Pass project that state or imply that Canadian hydropower has no or minimal greenhouse gas emissions. Hydro-Québec is building new hydropower projects that are intended to facilitate new exports to the northeastern United States. To the extent that the prospect of exports is driving the construction of new reservoirs, Northern Pass and projects like it will be responsible for those reservoirs’ emissions and also their other adverse environmental impacts. And if, as the developers’ analysis concluded, the power to be displaced by imports through Northern Pass is overwhelmingly from natural gas plants, the emissions from a succession of new reservoirs in Canada may replace – perhaps completely for a period of time – the emissions of displaced natural gas power. In that scenario, the Northern Pass project would do little – or even nothing – to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, at least in the near-term.

The report makes another critical point about a different kind of displacement that could occur with Northern Pass. According to a recent study, stepping up Hydro-Québec’s exports to the United States may actually decrease its exports to other provinces in Canada, where the need for fossil fuel-fired power then increases, resulting in additional emissions. Those emissions may cancel out any reductions from displaced power in the United States. This effect is a potential blind spot that needs to be considered and analyzed as part of the public review of any new imports.

The report’s findings are important information regarding the environmental impacts of the project that the U.S. Department of Energy must consider as part of its review of Northern Pass’s application for a Presidential Permit. For that reason, earlier today, CLF submitted the report to DOE along with Synapse’s analysis of the potential effect of Northern Pass on the regional market for renewable energy.

To CLF, the report suggests that new imports could be part of the region’s climate strategy if imports:

  • displace dirty power, like project sponsor PSNH’s uneconomic, subsidized power plants, to achieve a meaningful net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions without increasing the use of fossil fuel-fired power plants in Canada;
  • support – rather than undermine – local renewable projects and energy efficiency efforts in New England; and
  • have minimal impacts on the environment and communities on both sides of the border.

PSNH is in a unique position to take its coal units offline, in conjunction with its potential power purchase agreement with Hydro-Québec that is supposedly in the works. Instead, PSNH is marching on with its broken coal-based business model at great cost to New Hampshire consumers and the environment. Unless the proposal changes, the Northern Pass project does not deliver on the developers’ claims and will not advance a cleaner energy future for New England.

Would Northern Pass Swamp the Regional Market for Renewable Projects?

Dec 21, 2011 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

photo credit: Witthaya Phonsawat

With the Northern Pass project on the table, as well as other looming projects and initiatives to increase New England’s imports of Canadian hydroelectric power, the region’s energy future is coming to a crossroads. The choice to rely on new imports will have consequences that endure for decades, so it’s critical the region use the best possible data and analysis to weigh the public costs and benefits of going down this road. To date, there have been almost no objective, professional assessments of the ramifications.

Today, CLF is making available to the public a technical report prepared by Synapse Energy Economics addressing a crucial issue: the potential effects of new imports on the region’s own renewable power industry. 

The report, Renewable Portfolio Standards and Requirements (PDF), explains how the Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) of each New England state and New York address hydropower and then examines the potential effects of allowing Canadian large-scale hydropower to qualify for incentives by allowing such power to count toward states’ goals for renewable power under RPS programs.

Vermont is currently the only state that allows Canadian hydropower to qualify for its (now voluntary) RPS. If Vermont elects to use Canadian hydropower to fulfill all or most of its RPS goal (which is contemplated by pending legislation that would make Vermont’s RPS mandatory), there would be a modest but important reduction in the incentives available to new renewable projects in the region. The report concludes that there would be a much more significant impact if the RPS programs in other states were changed to allow Canadian hydropower to qualify (as was proposed in New Hampshire and Connecticut earlier this year and is being discussed right now in Massachusetts). In that scenario, imports from Northern Pass (or import projects of similar size) would swamp the market, taking up 45% of the region’s mandate for new renewable power and deeply undermining the viability of new renewable development in the Northeast.

This finding is a new illustration of why CLF opposes changing RPS laws to count large-scale hydropower toward the region’s renewable goals, a result that would both harm local renewable projects and send incentives funded by New England ratepayers out of the country to suppliers that do not need them.

For their part, Northern Pass’s developers have downplayed any risks to local renewable energy but have refused to refrain from lobbying for and securing the very changes to the RPS laws that Synapse predicts would, when paired with new imports through Northern Pass, cut the legs out from under renewable energy based in New England. It is no wonder that it’s not only CLF sounding the alarm on this issue:  electric industry veterans like Cynthia Arcate and the trade association of New England’s competitive electric generating companies have also expressed concern.

The bottom line for CLF: any plan to increase imports will need a robust and comprehensive set of enforceable commitments – which are completely absent in the current Northern Pass proposal – for the region to ensure that New England’s own renewable energy industry will prosper and grow into the future. 

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/northernpass), and take a look at our prior Northern Pass posts on CLF Scoop.