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

Christophe Courchesne

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Propping up outdated physical assets – with high fixed maintenance costs – in the hopes that they will someday become competitive again is not “insurance.”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.

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