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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.

FISHY MISSING INFO

Posted by on 22 Jun 2016 | Tagged as: blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Daily Hampshire Gazette, FirstLight, fish counts, Fish passage results, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Greenfield Recorder, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, migratory delay, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, public trust, right-to-know, salmon, salmon hatchery, sea lamprey, shad, The Recorder, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont, Vernon Dam Fishway

The following OpEd appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette (Northampton,MA) and The Recorder (Greenfield, MA) in early June.

Fishy Missing Info Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

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(low flows and byzantine fish ladder at Turners Falls 6/19/16:CLICK TO ENLARGE)

I’d like to change the name of a Commonwealth agency. What would you think about the Massachusetts Division of “Manufactured” Fisheries and Wildlife? I think it would offer a much better picture of the Agency’s focus, particularly here in the Connecticut Valley. Here you can get daily on-line information on where to find truckloads of thousands-upon-thousands of factory-produced rainbow, brown and brook trout before they are dumped into local rivers for hatchery-fish angling pleasure. But I dare you to find anything more than a several-weeks-old tally of the numbers of wild migratory fish streaming north here on the Connecticut anywhere beyond the fish windows at Holyoke Dam. So this would be a “truth-in-labeling” adjustment.

New England’s Great River runs for 69 miles through the Commonwealth. The MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife is responsible for all migratory fish in that broad reach from the time they enter at Agawam, until they either remain here for spawning, or pass into Vermont and New Hampshire. Those runs are the agency’s “public trust”—to be protected for its citizens, anglers, students and future generations. But the less information the public gets on their whereabouts, the less an agency might be availed upon to actually protect them.

As we enter the final weeks of migration season the only information provided—not just days old, but nearly a month stale, refers solely to fish on the first 16 miles of river from the Connecticut border to the fish lift at Holyoke Dam. That leaves a full 52 miles of river with just a single—now uselessly outdated May 4th report about the truly wild shad, lamprey and herring now moving along New England’s flagship waterway. Salmon are not mentioned here because just three years after the US Fish & Wildlife Service stopped factory production of this hybrid, just a single salmon has been tallied. Hatchery fish production masks the reality of failing wild populations and deteriorating habitats. To date there’s been but one report on fish passage from Turners Falls.

As an interested citizen I’m a bit outraged that it’s June 1st, and I don’t have a clue about what’s going on with the wild, migrating fish coming upriver in what you have to consider as one of New England’s last remaining great migrations. Shad, blueback herring, and sea lamprey have been moving upstream for over two months now, and the only public information offered is of the absurd 54 shad counted at Turners Falls, almost a full month back. Really? This is any agency with an accountability problem.

MA DF&W has scant little to offer the public as to what they’ve been doing on the ground to protect our wild fish runs—and that includes struggling populations of state-listed, endangered shortnose sturgeon, also under their purview. But to not even take responsibility for having on-the-ground personnel monitoring runs at the river’s long-known choke point, Turners Falls, is a flagrant abdication of duty. Here in central and northern Massachusetts we not only don’t see fish because of decimated Connecticut River habitats, we aren’t even offered updated tallies on the ugly mess. But perhaps that’s by design. Connecticut’s state fisheries agency regularly provides more information on Commonwealth fish runs than does the MA DF&W.

When I recently contacted the Commonwealth’s Anadromous Fish Project Leader to inquire about fish passage information at Turners Falls, he tersely emailed back that the state no longer does those fish counts: I should contact FirstLight Power for information. I guess our fish are now fully privatized. And when it has come to the power company requesting larger and more frequent water withdrawals on the Connecticut upstream at the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, it appears the Division has never seen a company proposal it wasn’t just fine with.

This 2016 season has literally been the worst year for Massachusetts fish passage information since 2010, when FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain broke down, fouling its pumping tunnels with 45,000 cubic square yards of reservoir muck. They didn’t operate from May – November and fish passage at Turners Falls–it was subsequently revealed, had jumped 600-800% above yearly averages. We didn’t get that information until late as well. Seem a little fishy to you?

Some of us actually care about wild fish and living rivers. And, frankly, if I were reduced to thinking that following a truckload of factory fish to its dumping site for a day’s angling was a wildlife experience—well, I’d just as soon get one of those wind-up fish carousels you can hold–the ones with the tiny plastic pole and the revolving, yapping fish mouths. The Massachusetts Division of “Manufactured” Fish & Wildlife–sounds about right where wild fish and the Connecticut River is concerned.

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

AN INSENSITIVITY OF PLACE

Posted by on 29 May 2016 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, AMC, American Whitewater, Appalachian Mountain Club, By Pass Reach, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Connecticut River Watershed Council, CRWC, Dead Reach, ecosystem, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC Comments, Gary Sanderson, Greenfield Recorder, New England FLOW, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, Station 1, The Recorder, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, whitewater boating

An Insensitivity of Place

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer (CLICK on any photo to ENLARGE)

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There’s a big difference between theory and practice. So too is there often a huge divide between what is said and what is done—and a giant gap between how you portray your intentions in writing, and how you actually carry yourself in the real world. The difference between those things is what most often turns out to be true.

At the Rock Dam, the endlessly-beleaguered and sole natural spawning site for the state- and federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon in the entire Connecticut River system, that difference came into high resolution last week. While I looked on four people in helmets and safety gear lumbered in a huge blue raft over the tiny, watered notch leading into that self-same shortnose sturgeon spawning pool. Four other decked-out compadres looked on admiringly from atop the low ledge that helped form this little ancient pool thousands of years back.

The “drop” for this joyride might have been a total of 4 feet at best, perhaps a third of the length of the giant boat. For any shortnose sturgeon that might have been using this unique ecological site to accomplish the most basic act of survival—spawning, it would’ve been the equivalent of the Starship Enterprise plopping down atop your kiddy pool party. Basically, party over. But hey, those fish are only the sole federally-endangered migratory species in the entire river. Hope you enjoyed the ridiculously short, half-second rush… Yahoo!

And the real kicker is, they were doing this within the known documented time-window at Rock Dam for shortnose sturgeon to be present and attempting to spawn successfully. This was a Sunday, but the previous Wednesday I’d seen rafts being trailered away from the site in the “Patch” section of Turners Falls. I didn’t quite put it together until Gary Sanderson’s column came out in The Recorder the next day, noting the obtuseness of rafters and kayakers he’d seen repeatedly making the same disrespectful maneuvers at Rock Dam earlier in the week.

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But here’s the theory and practice divide. During the current 5-year Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing hearings for the Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage projects, these whitewater groups have been at the table advocating for increased flows and access for the public on this short section of river. Chief among these have been American Whitewater and New England FLOW, with the Appalachian Mountain Club partnered with the Connecticut River Watershed Council submitting formal testimony in favor of whitewater boating interests here.

AMC and the Watershed Council in submitted testimony are advocating opening up this most-biologically-damaged stretch of the river for the last half century to increased access at three sites over a tiny reach that is just 2.7 miles long: “Improvements would need to be made to a put-in at the upstream end of the run downstream of Turners Falls dam, the take-out at Poplar Street, and access at No. 1 station and at the Rock Dam.” I wonder how many boats, rafts and cars per mile of river that constitutes.

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All groups in their statements and submitted testimony made reference to their concerns for the protection of aquatic habitats here, as well as adherence to the Clean Water Act in this Dead Reach stretch of the Connecticut that includes the extremely critical spawning habitat of the shortnose sturgeon—which consists solely of the small, semi-circular pool that forms below Rock Dam–along with its tiny little 4 foot drop. Shortnose congregate at Rock Dam for spawning from early April through the end of May. Let’s run giant rafts over them and invite crowds of kayakers to overwhelm the river and rocks here to demonstrate respect and concern for a river struggling for life here these last 50 years.

This is self-interested behavior only a little removed from that of the power companies, and, like the power companies, there is cash waiting in the wings for using the river in this most self-considered way. So, well done, whitewater boating interests! We at least now have a tiny picture of what your practice, rather than theory, might constitute. And, hey, did it ever cross your minds that some people actually consider the Rock Dam a sacred place..?

Redeem the promise at Great Falls

Posted by on 16 Nov 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, bald eagle, canal shad, Captain William Turner, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River Refuge, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Conte, Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge, Daily Hampshire Gazette, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, FERC license, FERC licensing process, Greenfield Recorder, Holyoke Fish Lift, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, Relicensing, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, shad fishing, shortnose sturgeon, The Greenfield Recorder, The Recorder, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, USFWS, Vermont, Vermont Yankee, wildlife refuge

The following piece, with edits, appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette and The Recorder on November 12, 2015 as: “Federal wildlife service must preserve the promise at Great Falls,” and “River restoration retreat”

The US Fish & Wildlife Service’s recent abandonment of their flagship Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center at Turners Falls defies all logic. In August they abruptly withdrew their on-site interpreter and funding for The Great Falls Discover Center. That center was located above the falls two decades back precisely because of the site’s importance as an ecological refuge—perched at a river crossroads critical to the success of their new “watershed-based” refuge.

Back then bald eagles had just returned to Turners Falls; it was once again the place that hundreds of thousands of migrating American shad surged to each spring. And just downstream was the sole natural site where the only federally-endangered migratory fish in the watershed–the ancient Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, attempted to spawn each May. Known as the Rock Dam, its an ancient geological formation that remains a premiere retreat for spring shad anglers. For its biological and historic importance alone, Rock Dam should have long ago been offered the Refuge’s first “in-river” sanctuary designation.

Yet today, USFWS seems ready to walk away from its core mission and long history on the river at Turners Falls. Doing so would be no less an historic retreat than that of Captain Turner and his battalion after their pre-dawn attack on hundreds of Native American women, children and old men seeking refuge at that very site nearly 340 years ago. On May 19, 1676–having accomplished their grizzly goal with the loss of just one man, they were sent in reeling retreat when the first counter-attacking Native warriors arrived from a downstream island encampment opposite today’s Rock Dam. They’d been stationed there to intercept the teeming May shad runs to help feed their people. Turner and 37 of his troops died in the ensuing rout.

Today, Turners Falls remains the site of the US Fish & Wildlife’s biggest regional blunder in a mission to protect a nation’s fish and wildlife resources on New England’s Great River. In the late 1970s they signed off on the plan resulting in a series of fish ladders being built there. It forced all migratory fish out of the river and into the Turners Falls Power Canal. That resulted in a half century of failed fisheries and habitat restoration—largely drawing the curtain down on a spring ocean-connection for riverine habitats in Vermont, New Hampshire, and northern Massachusetts. That 1967 USFWS/four-state migratory fisheries restoration compact for the Connecticut River still founders at Turners Falls today.

That is why the recent USFW’s retreat from their ecologically and historically unique flagship perch remains inexplicable. Currently federal hydro-relicensing studies of dam and canal operations at Turners Falls are taking place. Their outcomes will determine environmental conditions governing the Connecticut River in this reach for two generations to come. The USFWS is playing a key role in these studies as the lead agency empowered to define and require changes at Turners respecting the protection and restoration of the public’s federal-trust and federally-endangered fish species there. In short, they’re at a crossroads. They are the key player able to restore past mistakes and make the Conte Connecticut River Watershed National Fish and Wildlife Refuge a true refuge for annual migrants passing from Connecticut to Massachusetts; then Vermont and New Hampshire.

That long-awaited success would occur at the doorstep of the Great Falls Discovery Center–replete with its life-sized displays of watershed fish and wildlife, and its accessible public auditorium. It’s a huge opportunity at a site virtually on the river, easily reachable by visitors from a broad swath of southern New England travelling the I-91/Route 2 Corridor. Great Falls is the only brick and mortar place for the public to regularly interact with USFW staff and a diversity of displays of characterizing watershed habitats for 80 miles in any direction. What’s more it’s the only publicly-funded flagship Refuge site where admission is free.

Without a touchstone site in this populous reach of the watershed, most citizens will remain unaware of the restoration and conservation work of the USFWS. They’ll be left to surmise instead that Conte is more a theoretical Refuge—a concept and an amorphous jumble of disparate parts lacking any true core.

In practice and in theory, Turners Falls and the Discovery Center site represent the best of opportunities for the US Fish & Wildlife Service to succeed in their core missions of conservation, restoration, public access and education. A second retreat at Turners Falls would be an historic failure. This fabulously rich reach of the Connecticut is uniquely situated to showcase the Service’s long-awaited success in river restoration on the public’s behalf. Many mistakes could be redeemed with the right decisions at this time. Don’t abandon the Great River at the Great Falls.

Public comments are being accepted through November 13th on the USFWS’s plans for Conte Refuge priorities for the next 15 years at: www.fws.gov/refuge/silvio_o_conte/

Karl Meyer
Greenfield

Greening Greenfield’s “Green Hero” for September

Posted by on 11 Sep 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC licensing process, Fish passage results, Greenfield Recorder, Greening Greenfield, Holyoke Fish Lift, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Rock Dam, shortnose sturgeon, teachers, The Recorder, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS

Greening Greenfield’s “Green Hero” for September

I’ve had the honor of being selected as Greening Greenfield’s “Green Hero” for September, 2015. The award was announced in the pages of The Recorder on September 9th; the text from that piece is attached below.

Thanks to all the people of Greening Greenfield for extending me that recognition—as well as focusing on the importance of the critical artery in Western New England’s ecosystem, the Connecticut River. Greening Greenfield has been hard at work locally on issues of climate and sustainability for over a decade. Their efforts reach into all aspects of local energy, economy, and quality of life issues. They’ve made great strides in steering Greenfield toward an environmental future that will nourish coming generations. www.greeninggreenfield.org .

A special thanks from me to Susan and Dorothy.

Text of The Recorder piece follows:

A Passion for the Connecticut River

The first thing you notice about Karl Meyer is that his eyes light up when he speaks about the Connecticut River and the fish that live in it. His commitment and enthusiasm shows through in his words and in every action he takes.

In the 1970s’, Karl was interested in the river for its scenic qualities. But in the 1980’s, he visited Holyoke fishway during May spawning season and observed some of the more than a million fish moving through lifts there. One year 720,000 American Shad and 500,000 blueback herring came through the river at Holyoke. That image never left him.

Since that time, Karl has concentrated on the needs of the fish in the river, with a particular concern for American shad and the shortnose sturgeon, an endangered species. Karl believes the Connecticut’s restoration concentrated on the wrong species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put a great deal of effort into stocking the river and building fish ladders for Atlantic salmon, a fish extinct here since 1809. That emphasis diverted attention from shortnose sturgeon, shad, and blueback herring, none of which benefit very much from those Turners Falls fish ladders which diverted all migrants into the Turners Falls power canal.

In 2015, 410,000 American shad passed through Holyoke, but because they are diverted out of the river and into the power canal only 60,000, fewer than 15%, made it past Turners Falls to reach open, upstream spawning grounds. This is clearly unsustainable. Today’s US Fish & Wildlife Service passage goal is 60% passing Turners Falls. Their original 1967 target was 75%.

With fewer fish making it to food-rich, open habitats, fewer newborn fish survive. There will be fewer fish for eagles, herons and osprey, and fewer for anglers and the public to consume. Eventually 15% of very little will result in the failure of the restoration to return vibrant shad runs to three target states.

Karl has a simple solution for this problem. Require life-giving flows in the river throughout spawning and migration season. When fish aren’t diverted into a turbine-lined power canal they’ll have a much greater possibility of making it to spawning grounds in MA, VT and NH. It’s a last chance for river restoration.

The other great danger to river health is the Northfield Mountain Pumping Station. It draws on the 20 miles of river backed up behind Turners Falls Dam, pumping it uphill to a 5 billion gallon reservoir. Northfield hugely impacts river flows and migration.

“An original design proposal had Northfield closing during migration and spawning season. Implementing that today would return more natural flows to the river. It would allow fish to migrate directly upriver in natural habitat, and let sturgeon gather and spawn successfully at their ancient Rock Dam spawning site,” stated Karl.

So how do we encourage this change? Easy. Right now the Northfield and Turners Falls/Cabot Station facilities are both up for 30-year relicensing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). We can all comment on the relicensing of these plants at http://www.ferc.gov/docs-filing/ecomment.asp. The FERC project number for Northfield is P-2485; Cabot Station is P-1889. Advocating that our river run free during spawning and migration season could make a huge difference in improving the health of the Connecticut.

Karl would like to see local high schools adopt the National Marine Fisheries Service’s SCUTES Program and encourage monitoring of tagged, adult shortnose sturgeon at their ONLY documented natural spawning site, The Rock Dam in Turners Falls. By developing an awareness of the numbers and needs of these endangered fish, students will build a new relationship to this river. http://www.greateratlantic.fisheries.noaa.gov/prot_res/scutes/kits.html

For his tireless work to create a healthy Connecticut River and a vibrant fish population within it, Karl Meyer is our Green Hero for the month of September.

Enron Redux in New England

Posted by on 14 Oct 2014 | Tagged as: Brayton Point coal plant, Cheryl Lafleur, Energy Capital Partners, Enron, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Greenfield Recorder, Mt. Tom Coal Plant, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Public Citizen, Rutland Herald, Times Argus

Note: the following piece appeared in September 2014 in the Sunday edition of the Rutland Herald(www.rutlandherald.com); the Times-Argus in Montpelier, VT(www.times-argus.com),  and The Recorder in Greenfield, MA(www.recorder.com).

Copyright © 2014 by Karl Meyer

ENRON REDUX

Kids: go to your parent’s bedroom and find mommy’s purse and take $110 out of it. Then go out and have some fun. Why? Because the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and its own creation–the Holyoke, MA-based Independent System Operator of New England (ISO-NE), just confirmed that it’s ok to steal. The theft took place in June at a rigged ISO-NE “forward market” energy auction. There, Hartford-based Energy Capital Partners made off with the public’s loot to the tune of $110 from every New England ratepayer, according to consumer watchdog Public Citizen.

In a pre-dawn, September 17th press release, FERC Chair Cheryl LaFleur argued that it was legitimate for corporate-citizen ECP to manipulate the market and pick the pockets of ratepayers from Hartford to Springfield, and Boston and Montpelier—three years in advance. That panicked missive arrived directly on the heels of two FERC Commissioners, Norman Bay and Tony Clark, issuing their own September 16th press release terming the summer ISO-NE ratepayer swindle a “non-competitive auction.” It was a tiny crack in the curtain surrounding FERC decisions. In a split vote, LaFleur and one other Commissioner voted against intervening in the bogus outcome—thus tabling it, and letting the theft stand as legitimate commerce.

Given that, I’m figuring parents would prefer their kids got the cash, rather than a clique of market manipulators. Give your child a head start.

According to Public Citizen, FERC’s failure to intervene will have New Englanders forking out and additional $1.4 billion for the inflated BTU prices ECP manipulated into place for energy to be delivered three winters hence. That, Public Citizen says, will cost each of us over a hundred bucks.

With LaFleur providing the leadership, FERC, our public watchdog on energy projects, rates, regulation and reliability, gave the nod to its puppet-cousin ISO-NE–signaling that its “independent” actions letting ECP game the auction system were acceptable business as usual.

Just like stealing from your parents, Energy Capital Partners was pretty brazen in their market rigging. What they did was purchase an old New England dinosaur, the Brayton Point coal plant in Somerset, MA in 2013. Then, just weeks later, they announced they would be closing Brayton Point–citing environmental and economic constraints. That closure was timed perfectly to influence “forward” market prices. It would take place in May 2017—creating an energy “deficit” timed to show up on the books precisely as the 2017 energy auction was to take place. That staged BTU shortfall caused the spike in prices and accepted forward market bids at ISO-NE’s auction—all to be born at the public’s expense.

ECP will profit handily from their own paper tiger—silent proceeds flowing like electric current to investors, steered directly through ECP’s five other New England venture capital energy plants. That’s how you spike an energy market. It’s the stuff investors gush over.

FERC is charged with ensuring fair pricing for the public, as well as energy reliability in a deregulated market. In its own words its core responsibility is to “guard the consumer from exploitation by non-competitive electric power companies.” It was FERC that created ISO-NE, the regional grid’s independent system operator charged with keeping the lights on in the public’s interest. It’s now clear ISO also referees sham auctions.

Maybe New Englanders won’t mind getting their pockets picked; utility bills are clever at never revealing what you’re actually paying for. But I mind–$110 isn’t chump change to me. I’m worried too that today it’s FERC that’s also overseeing virtually all the controversial energy proposals now swamping the New England region: from mega Northern Pass power lines entering from Canada, to the Tennessee Gas Pipeline, to the relicensing of five large-scale hydro projects on the Connecticut River including the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project.

Curiously, Energy Capital Partners sold the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Plant to GDF-Suez FirstLight Energy over half a decade back. Now it looks like FirstLight may be taking a page out of ECP’s market playbook. They just requested an open-ended and unprecedented “emergency” power uprate and a 20% increase in storage capacity for NMPS, due to a perceived–but as yet undocumented, energy shortfall for the coming winter. What FirstLight withheld in its lengthy application arguments to FERC, was that it is closing down its own 135 megawatt Mt. Tom coal plant in Holyoke this October. Create your own energy deficit. It is also an end-run around environmental relicensing studies set to take place next year. We’ll all pay.

So if you thought “no-bid” government contracts were a thing of the past and that energy market manipulation and wash-through trades were a distant echo of the Enron and Arthur Anderson scandals, think again. Given the pressing concerns of climate change and the dismal record of market manipulation, the time has arrived to re-regulate energy.

Karl Meyer of Greenfield, MA is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.