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

Christophe Courchesne

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.

Before you go… CLF is working every day to create real, systemic change for New England’s environment. And we can’t solve these big problems without people like you. Will you be a part of this movement by considering a contribution today? If everyone reading our blog gave just $10, we’d have enough money to fund our legal teams for the next year.

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