As Plain as the Nose on Your Face: Major Clean Air Act Violations at Rhode Island’s Central Landfill

Jul 19, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Rhode-Island-Landfill

For miles around Rhode Island’s Central Landfill, the air often smells like rotten eggs.  In the Landfill, garbage degrades and gives off a gas that is part hydrogen sulfide (which produces the rotten-egg smell), part volatile organic compounds (which can cause cancer), and part methane (a potent greenhouse gas).  At well-run landfills, collection systems capture enough of this gas to avoid creating health and environmental hazards.  Here in Rhode Island, though, something is wrong.

That’s why yesterday CLF’s Rhode Island office notified companies associated with the Landfill that we intend to sue for violations of the federal Clean Air Act.

After a thorough investigation, we figured out that two companies – Broadrock Gas Services and its subsidiary Rhode Island LFG Genco – are not collecting landfill gas like they are supposed to be doing.  Instead, they have allowed part of their gas collection system to become submerged in water.  The gas that is not and cannot be captured by these underwater collectors instead escapes to the air we breathe.  We can tell for sure that gas is escaping because federal regulations don’t allow the air at a landfill’s surface to contain more than 500 parts per million of methane (above background levels in the air), but readings at the Landfill have been as high as 72,900.  By failing to capture harmful landfill gas, the companies have violated the Clean Air Act.

Broadrock and Genco have also been in the news lately for venting landfill gas or some byproduct directly into the atmosphere from a pipe rigged with a broom handle and held together with duct tape.  By venting this gas directly from a pipe to the air, the companies have again violated the Clean Air Act.

As the owner of the Landfill, Rhode Island Resource Recovery is legally responsible for Broadrock and Genco’s violations.  CLF Rhode Island has also learned that Resource Recovery has been operating the Landfill for the last sixteen years without a federally required permit.  By requiring Resource Recovery to get this long-missing permit – which should apply to Broadrock and Genco’s operations too – we hope to bring comprehensive oversight and a clear division of responsibilities to the Landfill.

Now that we’ve notified Broadrock, Genco, and Resource Recovery that we intend to sue – a formal step required by the Clean Air Act before initiating a citizen suit – we have to wait sixty days before filing a complaint in federal court.  But we can start negotiating to fix the problem immediately.  The recent discovery that Broadrock and Genco have been venting raw landfill gas into the air – and the landfill gas explosion that happened a few days ago – let us know that the situation is truly urgent.  And CLF Rhode Island’s notices are a strong first step in getting landfill gas under control here in Rhode Island, stopping the release of harmful pollutants, and making that pervasive rotten-egg smell go away for good.

[Read CLF Rhode Island’s notice of intent to sue here.]

 

 

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

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.

The Writing Is on the Wall for Coal. Will New Hampshire Notice?

May 10, 2012 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

We are in the midst of a massive, historic retreat in the nation’s use of coal to produce electricity, which began in 2008. This ongoing shift away from our dirtiest fuel has made news around the country. The primary reason: coal-fired power plants – expensive new facilities and decades-old dinosaurs alike – can’t compete in today’s marketplace. Investors and customers are moving toward cleaner, cheaper alternatives, principally natural gas but also renewables (especially wind) and high-tech ways of reducing energy use.

The national trend is occurring here in New Hampshire and throughout New England. This week, New Hampshire learned that PSNH is not operating its flagship coal plant, Merrimack Station in Bow, and that its economic prospects are not good. In fact, the plant will sit completely idle for six months of 2012, prompting the Manchester Union Leader to run the headline, “PSNH’s Bow power plant shuts down.” (The word “temporarily” was later added to the online story.) The two coal boilers at PSNH’s Schiller Station in Portsmouth will operate even less. (The Nashua Telegraph also took note.) This is welcome and long overdue relief for New Hampshire from New England’s top toxic polluter, and it would not have happened without legal pressure from CLF and others. More on our work in a moment.

Across the region, coal use has been collapsing for some time — and this was not unpredicted, as PSNH is claiming. PSNH’s claims to the contrary convey its willfully myopic planning perspective – a direct result of its expectation that ratepayers will cover its costs with a handsome profit irrespective of how utterly unsuccessful its investment decisions have been.

Coal-fired power plants’ “capacity factors” – their actual power output as a percentage of their theoretical maximum output at full power, running 24/7 – are intended to be very high; these plants were designed to run at close to full power day and night as “baseload” power for the electric grid. Not anymore:

In 2012, the trend is accelerating. Nationally, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that, in the first quarter, coal power accounted for only 36% of total generation – the smallest role for coal in a generation and down almost 9% from the first quarter of 2011. Regionally, a new milestone came in April, when the regional electric grid announced that, during the previous month, it didn’t dispatch any power from New England coal plants to meet the region’s electric demand.

For public health, air quality, the environment, the climate, and the communities where these plants are located, these trend lines are all in the right direction. For years, CLF’s Coal-Free New England 2020 campaign has fought to speed this progress and to make it permanent, by holding plant operators accountable for violating environmental laws (including at Merrimack Station), securing final and binding agreements to guarantee closure, and working in coalition with local residents to plan for responsible redevelopment and reuse of the plants’ sites.

In New Hampshire, with the complicity of state regulators, PSNH made big bets that the market for its coal-fired power will exist for years to come. One such spectacularly bad gamble was PSNH’s investment – over vigorous opposition from CLF, ratepayer advocates, and others – in a life extension project for Merrimack Station, including air pollution controls that address only some of the plant’s toxic and harmful emissions, to the tune of $422 million, plus a 10% guaranteed profit, money it now wants back from New Hampshire residents and small businesses through the regulator-approved rates it charges. Given coal’s collapse, which CLF and ratepayer advocates predicted at the time, this investment looks absurd and unwise, except of course to PSNH and its parent company Northeast Utilities, which has repeatedly reassured shareholders it is entitled to get back the full value of the upgrade, even if the plant barely runs.

Why has PSNH been so richly rewarded for such terrible economic decisions? Put simply, New Hampshire’s backward relic of a regulatory system is still protecting PSNH and its coal plants from the market. Remarkably, ratepayers continue to pay for upkeep and staffing at PSNH’s power plants, even when they sit idle, and also pay that same 10% profit on the value of all PSNH assets, including its quiet coal piles – and that’s whatever book value PSNH assigns, not market value.

PSNH has fought tooth and nail to protect its special treatment. Earlier this year, PSNH pulled out all the stops to kill a bill that would have directed state regulators to investigate whether PSNH’s ownership of power plants, including Merrimack and Schiller Stations, is in the best interest of ratepayers. After PSNH’s full-court press of lobbying, editorial board visits, and pressure from PSNH employees as well as PSNH-allied unions, politicians, and chambers of commerce, the House tabled the bill.

In the meantime, PSNH remains in an economic “death spiral” with very few large business customers to cover its costs. As a result, its remaining customers – homeowners and small businesses – are now paying as much as 50% more for power (8.75 cents per kilowatt-hour) than are customers of other utilities – which do not own power plants and get all their power from the competitive market (around 6 cents per kilowatt-hour). And the Legislature continues to seek the rollback of New Hampshire clean energy laws under the guise of easing ratepayer burdens, mistaking small trees for the forest of PSNH’s above-market rates, which include the costs of both PSNH’s idle fleet and buying power from more efficient plants.

What is CLF doing about it? Against the odds, we’re succeeding at forcing New Hampshire regulators to scrutinize PSNH’s costs, and the fact that PSNH’s coal plants are now sitting idle and the corresponding benefits to public health and the climate are a product of that scrutiny and a testament to CLF’s advocacy. And we’re pushing for regulators to do much more to hold PSNH accountable for its abysmal planning and force PSNH’s shareholder Northeast Utilities – and not suffering PSNH ratepayers, who are paying among the nation’s highest electric rates – to bear the downside of PSNH’s bad bets on coal. The last thing we should be doing with our energy dollars is subsidizing dirty power that can’t compete.

The market is providing an unprecedented opportunity to make that Union Leader headline from this week – and headlines like it for every other coal plant in the region – an enduring reality as New England transitions to a clean energy future. New Hampshire and the rest of New England should seize it.

A dispatch from the future? Manchester Union Leader headline, May 8, 2012

It’s Time to Stop Subsidizing PSNH’s Dirty Power

Feb 1, 2012 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

Outlook with your head in the sand? Pretty dark, even when the future around you is bright. (photo credit: flickr/tropical.pete)

In a public hearing tomorrow, a legislative committee of the New Hampshire House will take up a proposal – House Bill 1238 – to force Public Service of New Hampshire’s dirty, costly power plants to confront the realities of the electric marketplace. The bill would require PSNH to sell (“divest”) its plants by the end of next year. Tomorrow’s hearing on House Bill 1238 is scheduled for 8:30 am in Representatives Hall under the dome of the New Hampshire State House, on North Main Street in Concord.

The debate is long overdue and comes at a critical time. Over the last several years, New England’s restructured electric market has overwhelmingly turned away from uneconomic facilities like PSNH’s coal and oil-fired power plants and toward less-polluting alternatives, especially natural gas. For most New England customers, this technology transition has resulted in lower electric bills, and we have all benefited from cleaner air. In the next few years, well-managed competitive markets are positioned to help us move to a real clean energy future that increases our use of energy efficiency, renewable resources, demand response, and innovative storage technologies.

CLF has played a key role in this process by, among other things, ensuring that coal plants are held accountable for their disastrous impacts on public health and the environment. As highlighted in an excellent op-ed in the Concord Monitor this week, CLF’s work includes our federal court case against PSNH’s Merrimack Station, New Hampshire’s biggest source of toxic and greenhouse gas emissions, which has repeatedly violated the Clean Air Act by failing to get permits for major changes to the plant.

Meanwhile, like the proverbial ostrich, PSNH gets to ignore what the market is saying. PSNH’s state-protected business model is a relic that has become a major drag on the pocketbooks of New Hampshire ratepayers and New Hampshire’s economy. Current law protects PSNH from market forces because it guarantees PSNH and its Connecticut-based corporate parent Northeast Utilities a profit on investments in PSNH’s power plants, whether or not they operate and whether or not they actually make enough money to cover their operating costs – an astounding rule for the small-government Granite State, to be sure.

The costs of this guarantee fall on the backs of New Hampshire residents and small business people, who effectively have no choice but to pay for PSNH’s expensive power. For their part, larger businesses have fled PSNH in droves, for cheaper, better managed suppliers. This has shrunk the group of ratepayers who are responsible for the burden of PSNH’s high costs, translating into even higher rates for residents and small businesses.

PSNH customers face the worst of both worlds – electric rates that are among the highest in the nation and a fleet of aging, inefficient, and dirty power plants that would never survive in the competitive market.

It is by now beyond dispute that these plants are abysmal performers. Last year, CLF and Synapse Energy Economics presented an analysis to New Hampshire regulators showing that the coal-fired units at PSNH’s Schiller Station in Portsmouth will lose at least $10 million per year over the next ten years, for a total negative cash flow of $147 million. The analysis did not depend on natural gas prices remaining as low as they are now or any new environmental costs; because it is old and inefficient, Schiller will lose money even if gas prices go up and it doesn’t need any upgrades. According to information provided by PSNH to regulators last week, PSNH’s supposed workhorse Merrimack Station will not even operate for five months this year because it would be uneconomic compared to power available in the New England market. Nonetheless, PSNH ratepayers will be paying for the plant even when it does not run.

It will only get worse: PSNH’s rates could skyrocket later this year if New Hampshire regulators pass on the bill for PSNH’s $422 million investment in a scrubber for Merrimack Station to ratepayers, and other costly upgrades of PSNH’s fleet may be necessary to comply with environmental and operational requirements in the future. And the PSNH-favored Northern Pass project, if it ever gets built, would only exacerbate the situation for PSNH ratepayers by making PSNH power even less competitive and reducing the value of PSNH power plants.

PSNH is hitting back against House Bill 1238 with its typical full-court press of lobbying and PR, and we can expect a packed house of PSNH apologists at tomorrow’s hearing. PSNH has even resorted to starting a Facebook page – “Save PSNH Plants” – where you can see PSNH’s tired arguments for preserving the current system plants as a “safety net” that protects PSNH employee jobs and a hedge against unforeseen changes in the energy market. The pitch is a little like saying that we should pay Ford and its workers to make Edsels half a century later, just in case the price of Prius batteries goes through the roof. Make no mistake: PSNH is asking for the continuation of what amounts to a massive ratepayer subsidy for as far as the eye can see.

Public investments have gotten a bad name lately, but it is at least clear that sound commitments of public dollars to energy should be targeted, strategic, and forward-thinking. They should help move us, in concert with the much larger capital decisions of the private sector, toward a cleaner energy future. Instead, PSNH is fighting for New Hampshire to keep pouring its citizens’ hard-earned money, year after year, into dinosaur power plants. That’s a terrible deal for New Hampshire, and CLF welcomes the House’s effort to open a discussion on how to get us out of it.

First in New England: PSNH Is the Region’s Top Toxic Polluter

Jan 6, 2012 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

The nation’s attention may be focused right now on the twists and turns of New Hampshire’s First in the Nation primary. But new pollution data from the Environmental Protection Agency put a more troubling spotlight on New Hampshire – and on its largest utility, Public Service Company of New Hampshire (PSNH). 

According to the data, PSNH is the region’s top toxic polluter, and PSNH’s coal-fired power plant in Bow, Merrimack Station, releases more toxic pollution to the environment than any other facility in New England. Because of PSNH, New Hampshire as a whole is first in New England in toxic pollution.

The numbers tell a striking story.  In 2010, Merrimack Station released 2.8 million pounds of toxic chemicals to the environment, mostly in air pollution.  That’s an astonishing 85% of the 3.3 million total pounds of toxic pollution released in New Hampshire in 2010. When you add in PSNH’s coal-fired Schiller Station in Portsmouth and its gas and oil-fired Newington Station in Newington, PSNH was responsible for a total of 3 million pounds of toxic pollution in 2010, more than 90% of New Hampshire’s toxic pollution. 

PSNH’s pollution isn’t saving energy consumers anything – PSNH’s rates are among the highest in New England because of the escalating costs of maintaining PSNH’s old, inefficient power plants. And those rates are slated to steadily climb as PSNH customers – mostly residents and small businesses – watch large commercial and industrial customers reject the costs of PSNH’s above-market coal-fired power to buy from cost-effective, competitive suppliers. As a result, most New Hampshire residents are left with the raw deal of paying among the highest rates for the dirtiest power in New England.

The data is a fresh reminder of why CLF is fighting so hard to hold Merrimack Station accountable for violating the Clean Air Act. In November, CLF made the case in federal court that PSNH’s failure to obtain permits for changes at Merrimack Station has meant that PSNH has evaded requirements for state-of-the-art pollution limits that would reduce its emissions of a wide range of toxic and other pollutants.

It’s true that PSNH’s much-touted and hugely expensive scrubber project now coming online at Merrimack Station will ultimately reduce some types of toxic pollution to the air. But PSNH wants to increase its energy rates by 15% to pay for the scrubber. Other required pollution controls, including those imposed by important new federal rules, may lead to further costs. This will make PSNH’s power plants an even worse deal for New Hampshire ratepayers.

Merrimack Station also sends more carbon dioxide into the air than any other source in New Hampshire, and the scrubber won’t change that. Burning coal is a dirty way to generate power that imperils the climate, and it is time for New England to abandon it for cleaner alternatives that safeguard our health and environment and transition us toward a new energy system.

New Hampshire may never be willing to relinquish its leading spot on the presidential primary calendar. But living with New England’s largest source of toxic pollution despite its unacceptable costs – to ratepayers and the environment – is a distinction that New Hampshire should be doing everything in its power to lose.