Entrainment

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Rolling over on a River: the real cost of pumped storage energy

Posted by on 26 Oct 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, climate change, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River Watershed Council, Daily Hampshire Gazette, ecosystem, Entrainment, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeion, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, fossil fuels, Greenfield Recorder, ISO New England, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, NOAA, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, nuclear power, Public Comment period, public trust, pumped storage, Relicensing, shad, shortnose sturgeon, Society of Environmental Journalists, The Recorder, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont, Vermont Digger, Vermont Yankee

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

(Note: this essay appeared in September and October in these MA and VT media and newspaper outlets: Vermont Digger, www.vtdigger.org ; The Daily Hampshire Gazette; and The Recorder.)

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The de-watered CT below Turners Falls Dam that few people see. (Click, then click again to enlarge.)

Rolling over on a river

Since time began rivers have been the Earth’s arteries—the foundation of its ecosystems. Here in New England it’s “last chance” time for our Great River. On April 30, 2018 the fate of the long-foundered Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration—and the survival of a four-state river ecosystem, will be decided for what’s essentially forever. New Federal Energy Regulatory Commission hydro licenses are expected to be signed then by government agencies and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board–latest purchaser of the Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain projects. That company’s stated investor mandate is “to maximize investment returns without undue risk of loss.”

Over two generations ago public-trust mistakes were made favoring power companies, fish hatcheries, and high-end salmon-fishing interests that rendered eight miles of the Connecticut in Massachusetts a massively-suctioned, partially-dewatered flush sink. Sanctioned by fisheries agencies and non-profits, those decisions, severed an ecosystem in two. They forced all migrating fish into a deadly power canal, leaving three emptied miles of riverbed below Turners Falls Dam, while four turbines at the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station five miles upstream consumed massive amounts of nuclear energy to suck a river backward and uphill to a mountaintop reservoir.

Those turbines were built to run on the promised endless supply of overproduced juice generated nightly at the local, now-closed, Vermont Yankee nuke, 15 miles away. Today, running on giant slugs of imported fossil fuel, they continue to spin, sucking the river up in endless gulps into a 4 billion gallon pool a mile up Northfield Mountain. That daily suctioning creates riverbank eroding “tides” higher than those at Hyannisport, MA—with some rivaling the ten-foot fluctuations of Fundy Bay.

Back then, predecessors of today’s National Marine Fisheries Service, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Massachusetts’ Fish & Wildlife and the Connecticut River Watershed Council signed off on an agreement with the Federal Power Commission and Western Massachusetts Electric that strangled the river in northern Massachusetts. It resulted in the failure of migratory fish passage and a promised renewal of the river’s ancient seafood resources upstream to Vermont, New Hampshire, and northern Mass. Few American shad emerged alive after diversion into that canal. It also failed the shortnose sturgeon—this river’s only federally endangered migratory fish, leaving it without flow or monitoring at its only documented natural spawning site.

Upstream at Northfield the destruction was yet more complete. The suck and gush appetite of that nuclear-charged contraption virtually disassembled the river. It gulped flow at a rate of 15,000 cubic feet per second, often for hours at a time—drawing on the river pool above Turners Falls Dam where, 70% of the time, the Connecticut’s natural routed flow is less than 15,000 cfs. Boaters a mile downstream could find themselves drifting upriver via Northfield’s unearthly pull. All fish and organisms drawn up through the sphere of that suction were deemed “functionally extirpated”–dead to the ecosystem by virtue of being sieved twice through the turbines. It was evolution in reverse, a river ripped away from its eternal run to the sea.

Today, climate-blind FERC labels Northfield as a source of “renewable clean” energy—but there’s nothing clean, renewable or sustainable about its imported, twice-produced, peak-priced electricity crippling this river. ISO New England, FERC’s Northfield-cheering, ever-energy-hungry cousin, also ignores climate and its environmental dismemberment. “Pumped storage” is not hydropower—not even by the industry’s own technical terminology. Northfield-produced power in fact represents the heavy planetary burden of fossil fuel used to push a mountain of water uphill, merely as a weight to produce high-cost, second hand electricity. It cares nothing of rivers, fish or ecosystems.

If bureaucrats again fail the public trust and don’t demand critical habitat protections, flows, and the day-to-day monitoring needed to fulfill U.S. environmental statutes, Canadian pension speculators will be left as the de facto controlling interests on our river. The new owners have asked FERC to merge two separate licenses for Northfield and Turners Falls into a single new license dubbed the “Northfield Project.” What’s represented as mere bureaucratic streamlining would actually enshrine, by precedent–next time and forever, river-killing pumped storage.

Any responsible environmental agency should deny this single-license merger, and seek to have Northfield kept in use as emergency infrastructure only—with the ultimate remedy it’s dismantling in tandem with a move to a decentralized, far less vulnerable system than today’s expanding mega-grid. Massachusetts legislators are currently signing onto backroom energy deals for a glut of future hydropower from Quebec. Some 1,200 megawatts of those penciled-in imports could easily replace the few hours of daily juice Northfield puts out–while keeping it available for rare emergencies. Though the new Canadian power imports largely ignore conservation and innovation, they could be employed to end the river carnage here and begin restoring a future for a critical New England ecosystem.

(Note: timely public comment on licensing issues is carefully considered by FERC. Go to: http://ferc.gov/docs-filing/ecomment.asp and use “E-Comment.” Check “Hydro” and address to Secretary Kimberly D. Bose, using the required identifiers “P-2485” and “P-1889” for Northfield and Turners Falls.)

Karl Meyer lives in Greenfield MA. He is participating in the FERC relicensing process and is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

The Hidden Costs of Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage

Posted by on 01 Sep 2014 | Tagged as: Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, ecosystem, Entrainment, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FirstLight, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Haddam nuclear plant, Ludington Pumped Storage Plant, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, resident river fish, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont Yankee, Yankee Atomic, Yankee Rowe Nuclear Plant

Copyright © 2014 by Karl Meyer

The hidden costs of Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage: after Vermont Yankee closes, FirstLight wants to ramp up pumping and profits

(a version of this piece first appeared in the Greenfield Recorder, August 23, 2014)

Vermont Yankee, the last of the region’s nuclear plants, will close in December. In response, GDF-Suez FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage plant is looking to change its stripes. On June 27th it applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a “temporary” license amendment to allow it broad new freedoms to consume unprecedented amounts of the Connecticut River from December 1, 2014 through March 31, 2015. That plan would add an additional 22 feet of pumping capacity to its 5-billion gallon reservoir, sucked directly from the river. More pumping is certain to create more riverbank erosion and draw more silt into that reservoir. It will also kill untold thousands of the public’s resident river fish.

The unprecedented request defies logic. Northfield was built specifically to use energy from local nuclear plants to push water up to its reservoir. In its request FirstLight also cited the closing of the 330 megawatt Salem Harbor coal plant as rationale for why it should be allowed to pump more, and grow larger. FirstLight Hydro Compliance Director John Howard stated, “The requested increase in operational flexibility is needed to provide ISO-New England with additional resources to deal with a potential shortage of energy in the Northeast this winter.” However Andrea Donlon of the Connecticut River Watershed Council found that ISO-New England, the grid’s Independent System Operator, had made no requests concerning Northfield, stating it expected to have adequate energy supply this winter.

FirstLight’s application failed to mention is that it is shutting down its own 135 megawatt Mt. Tom Coal Plant this October. Rather than the “peaking energy” and “emergency resource” plant it’s been since coming on-line in 1972, Northfield seems to be implying it will somehow serve as a replacement for those 24/7 “baseload” energy plants. The other logic-defying reality is that it would be consuming more baseload energy to create more brief pulses of high-priced energy to re-sell to us at “spot” market prices.

Northfield was fashioned during the nuclear build-out in the late 1960s to use the excess power generated at night from nuclear plants in Rowe, Vernon, VT and Haddam, CT to gulp giant slugs of the Connecticut up to its reservoir. When demand “peaked” during mornings or late afternoons it would release that stored nuclear energy—our river, back to its bed through massive turbines. It could produce some 1,000 megawatts in just minutes, great for short-term needs and emergencies. But it could only store enough water to produce 6-8 hours of electricity, total. Depleted, it then waited to re-start the process.

In her book “Inventing Niagara” Ginger Strand described the inefficiencies and rationale behind selling pumped storage electricity to the public as a textbook case of corporate capitalism: buy low, sell high. Northfield has never been a renewable hydro source. It is inefficient and operates at a net-energy loss. While its impacts on the river ecosystem are profound, its brief, staggering pulses of violent, high-volume output are no more efficient than that of legacy electric producers, just more short-term profitable.

Northfield only makes sense while it operates as a designated nuclear adjunct, run on the excesses of the region’s short-lived and now-shuttered nuclear fleet. But now it wants to soldier on, utilizing imported power and climate-changing resources. Meanwhile the river pays an as-yet unstudied price–as the public is asked to accept yet more “peak” energy, repackaged and re-sold at “peak” prices culled from bidding boards on the “spot” market.

FirstLight’s FERC request sparked official replies from entities involved in the current 5-year relicensing of Northfield. The National Marine Fisheries Service’s William McDavitt noted to John Howard “the timing of this temporary amendment application is a bit unfortunate as the proposed change could bear some impact on proposed 3.1.2 Northfield Mountain/Turners Falls Operations Impact on Existing Erosion and Potential Bank Instability. Were the proposed changes to go into effect, it seems as though the duration that NMPS pumps or generates could be changed.”

MA Fish and Wildlife made no objections to the up-rate, but the Watershed Council noted that fish kills there–known as “entrainment”, are worrisome, “Currently the entrainment impact of the NMPS facility during the winter is not well understood, which the pending appeal by USFWS regarding the sufficiency of FirstLight’s proposed entrainment study well illustrates,” further noting, “So until such time as we have a much better understanding of the entrainment impacts of NMPS, it seems inappropriate to request additional pumping capacity.”

In 1995 the owners of the Ludington(MI) Pumped Storage Plant agreed to a $172 million dollar settlement for its killing of the public’s fish across the previous two decades. There, according to the Ludington Daily News, they at least had the benefit of a one-time study showing LPSP “in a single year, killed 440,000 salmon and trout, 85,000 perch and millions of forage fish that served as food for valuable game.”

Since 1972 it’s been a free ride up at Northfield.

Karl Meyer is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.