PSNH's Coal Plants "Win" A Dirty Dozen Award

PSNH’s Coal Plants “Win” a Dirty Dozen Award: Their Dim Future Becoming Clear

For the past 25 years, Toxics Action Center has been “awarding” New England’s worst polluters with the dubious Dirty Dozen award. This year’s winners were no surprise: PSNH, New Hampshire’s largest electric utility, was on the list once again.

In this year’s annual spotlight on twelve of New England’s worst polluters, PSNH’s largely coal-firing Merrimack Station and Schiller Station power plants earned the award for the millions of pounds of toxic air pollution and greenhouse gases released by the plants. The Dirty Dozen awards are getting lots of press coverage around New Hampshire, and highlight the massive problems PSNH’s coal plants cause New Hampshire residents.

There is good news. Three of New England’s eight coal plants have closed in the past three years, and the rest (including Merrimack and Schiller) should be well on their way thanks to the massive economic inefficiencies of burning coal in the age of cheap natural gas. While these giant, ancient plants were built to run all day, all year round, the reduced demand for coal energy means that plants like Merrimack and Schiller are being used at historically low rates.

While the current cost of energy production at coal plants is staggering, nothing represents the exorbitant costs of coal better than Merrimack Station’s $422 million scrubber project. PSNH is already recovering the cost of that “investment” from its customers with a temporary rate increase, and has requested an even higher permanent rate increase to recover scrubber costs. Installing massively expensive pollution controls on an obsolete coal-fired power plant was recently shown to be a valueless endeavor when the investment firm UBS valued Dominion Energy’s Brayton Point coal plant (currently for sale) as a worthless asset, due to its poor prospects in the New England wholesale electricity market. Dominion has essentially written off its almost $1 billion pollution control investment at Brayton Point, which has little utility to a plant that does not operate due to its high cost to produce electricity in comparison to cleaner sources.  Merrimack Station’s scrubber investment is faring even worse in the market, because the plant is older and less efficient than Brayton Point.  In this regard, Dominion’s write down at Brayton Point foreshadows the future for Merrimack’s “investment.”

As we documented earlier this month, PSNH’s residential and small business energy service customers are abandoning the utility in favor of its competitors at a breakneck pace, following the lead of its medium and large commercial customers and creating an economic “death spiral” as costs climb and customers disappear. And since PSNH is guaranteed a profit by NH law for maintaining and operating its coal plants, the repercussions of the “death spiral” are felt by residential customers, rather than the company’s shareholders.

The residential customers who have not switched to a different energy service provider are projected to subsidize PSNH’s dirty power plants by an estimated $70 million above market rates in 2013. The above-market residential rate payments are then turned into dividends for the shareholders of Northeast Utilities, PSNH’s Connecticut-based parent company.

Northeast Utilities’ dividends are increasing steadily on the backs of New Hampshire ratepayers, and Merrimack and Schiller continue to produce pollution more efficiently than they generate electricity. How long will PSNH be allowed to fleece New Hampshire’s citizens?


Co-written with N. Jonathan Peress

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