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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.

The curious nucelar history of Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station

Posted by on 08 May 2014 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, ecosystem, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC license, FirstLight, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Haddam nuclear plant, Millstone 1, Montague Nuclear Station, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, right-to-know, shad, shad larvae, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont Yankee, Yankee Atomic

Copyright © 2014, by Karl Meyer

The curious nuclear history of Northfield Mountain’s pumped storage plant

(The following piece first appeared on April 30, 2014 in The Recorder in Greenfield, MA, under: Follow the power currents; How the pumping station once fit)

GDF-Suez FirstLight has applied for a new 30-year license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for its Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage plant on the Connecticut.  In this 5-year relicensing process US Fish & Wildlife Service has requested a study to protect a public resource: they want to know the mortality impacts NMPS has on eggs and larvae of migratory American shad.  But FirstLight wants FERC to substitute data from a 22 year-old Northfield study–their counsel has argued that eggs and larvae aren’t technically migratory, and thus have no right to protection at NMPS. 

Pumped storage is a most inefficient form of generating “hydro” electricity, and NMPS is not what it once was.  When proposed, Northfield was to be a nuclear-charged plant designed to gulp-up massive amounts of the Connecticut River, pushing it uphill to a reservoir carved into a mountain.  This would be done purchasing cheap, otherwise-wasted, night-generated nuclear energy from a fleet of soon-to-be-built local plants–which don’t switch off at night.

Once the net-loss task of pushing water uphill was accomplished via nuclear megawatts and reversing turbines, they’d send that water charging downhill to generate large pulses of energy during peak-use times.  Profits would come from reselling that energy back into the electric grid when demand and prices were highest, with consumers picking up the tab. 

But a river system also bore the hidden costs of NMPS and now USFWS wants to know what they are. FirstLight today doesn’t dispute NMPS kills all adult and juvenile shad drawn into its plant.  But that’s just one species.  FERC itself is mandated to protect federal trust fish, and the public is entitled to information on NMPS’s impacts.  Researchers report it sometimes draws so much river water that boats 5 miles downstream are pulled backward.    

Because of the limits of physics NMPS can only operate for 6 – 8 hours.  Then, water-depleted and power-less—it must again purchase new outside electricity to pump water uphill.  It was new technology when NMPS was proposed–technically “hydro” electricity, but not in the way people commonly understood it. 

During mid-1960s Federal Power Commission hearings, questions arose about the proposed NMPS plant’s impacts on the ecosystem.  One option, never implemented, was that it would cease operating during migration season to avoid slicing up the public’s fish in accordance with goals of the federal Anadromous Fish Conservation Act of 1965.

Back then just one local nuclear plant was operating, Yankee Atomic, 20 miles away in Rowe, MA.  But big, local, nuclear build-out plans were in the offing—the lion’s share of which would come to be owned by Northeast Utilities.  Fifteen miles upstream Vermont Yankee was under construction.  It opened in 1972 in lock-step with the completion of Northfield.  As VY and NMPS began tandem, nuclear-powered operation, plans were already underway for NU to build two reactors at a new Montague Nuclear Station, five miles from Northfield.

By fall of 1973 a 500 foot tower loomed over the Montague Plains, testing humidity, temperature, and prevailing winds in preparation for construction.  That tower was toppled in an act of civil disobedience by Sam Lovejoy the following February, helping bolster opposition to the plants.  But NU rebuilt the tower and collected the mandated data by 1975.  By then however, the playing field was changing.

Environmental questions were raised about the effects of Montague Nuclear Station’s drawing huge amounts of river water and dumping heated effluent back into the Connecticut on the federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon.  Questions also arose about the cumulative effects of entraining various life stages of American shad into the intake systems of two Montague plants and NMPS. 

Meanwhile, NU moved ahead on planned nuclear plants for the heavily-populated I-95 Providence-/New Haven corridor–some 100 and 125 miles distant from Northfield.  Four got built, but just two operate today. Their Haddam nuclear plant on our river was shut permanently in 1996 for safety and equipment failures.  So too in 1998 was Millstone Unit I in Waterford, CT.  In 1999 NU to accepted the largest nuclear fine to that time–$10 million for operational failures at those plants. 

Opposition, environmental impacts, soaring costs, and a partial meltdown at Three Mile Island saw NU abandon Montague Station in 1980.  Thus the Connecticut River basin doesn’t today host a forth, de-facto, nuclear waste dump.  Rowe’s Yankee Atomic closed in 1992—it’s now repository to hundreds of tons of spent nuclear fuel.  Vermont Yankee will close in December.  Entergy Nuclear has yet to fully endow their mandated decommissioning fund. 

Local nuclear power to push a river up Northfield Mountain is today nearly nonexistent.  The net-loss “hydro” generating process now taking place there essentially derives from a non-renewable, climate-warming mix of oil, coal and natural gas, plus some nuclear and even pulses of conventional hydropower purchased from as far away as Quebec. Beyond the yet-to-be-examined costs to the public’s ecosystem and fish, consumers are paying dearly for Northfield’s twice-sold electricity.  A fair relicensing process requires robust public information on the lethal aspects of Northfield’s operations.  FERC will decide the issue by early May.

Greenfield writer and journalist Karl Meyer has contributed written and oral testimony in the FERC relicensing process for the Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls power stations.