PSNH: Bad Planning and Old Power Plants Taking Their Toll on New Hampshire

N. Jonathan Peress

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.

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