Federal Energy Regulatory Commission schedules meetings on relicensing Connecticut River hydroelectric projects
TURNERS FALLS — As it launches a 5½-year process to relicense five hydroelectric projects along the Connecticut River, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has scheduled a series of meetings to set the scope of issues to be considered.
A Jan. 30 meeting focusing on First Light Power Co.’s Turners Falls hydroelectric stations and its Northfield Mountain pumped storage facility is scheduled for 9 a.m. at Great Falls Discovery Center. A meeting on the projects is also set for the same location Jan. 31 at 6 p.m.
In addition to project-specific meetings, FERC will also schedule a Jan. 31 meeting at 9 a.m. at the Discovery Center about cumulative incremental effects of the five Connecticut River projects being relicensed.
TransCanada Hydro’s Vernon, Vt., hydroelectric project, which along with that company’s Wilder hydroelectric project further upstream, will have its own designated meeting at the Marlboro College Graduate School in Brattleboro, Vt. on Jan. 30 at 7 p.m.
With existing 40-year licenses set to expire in 2018, the meetings are intended for local government agencies, nonprofit organizations and the public to outline what they believe are the key issues that federal regulators should consider as conditions for renewed operating licenses, which could be in effect for the next 30 to 50 years.
“This will be an opportunity to get all of the issues of concern out on the table,” said Tom Miner, who chairs the Connecticut River Streambank Erosion Committee and is its liaison with the Franklin Regional Planning Board.
“The streambank erosion committee will certainly be represented,” Miner said, and will press for FERC to incorporate steps to minimize erosion along the 20-mile stretch of river between the Vernon and Turners Falls dams, looking at how operation of the Northfield Mountain project affects that erosion and is involved in monitoring and stabilizing the banks.
Miner, who also was an executive director of the Connecticut River Watershed Council, added, “We’re going to be primarily interested in streambank erosion and the flow regime for the Northfield project,” which generates power by pumping river water up to a mountaintop reservoir and releasing it through turbines when there is the greatest demand for electricity.
That “flow regime” is also a concern of the watershed council, particularly since in recent years, operators of the Northfield project have been granted authority by FERC to pump more river water during severe power shortages.
With changes in economics of generating electricity since deregulation of utilities in the late 1990s, “It’s a dramatically different world in terms of economics and pressures on these companies in terms of how they run these facilities,” said watershed council Executive Director Andrew Fisk. “The economic drivers have changed fundamentally. We expect those conversations will be part of this. Where you can get better environmental conditions, more recreational and public opportunities and more generating capacity, that would be great. It’s clear that Northfield has said, ‘We want to be able to do more generating here.’ So lets talk about it.”
Another key concern is about fish passage, and providing for more flows in the stretch of river immediately downstream from the Turners Falls Dam, said Fisk, who says he’s interested in “getting ecological flows back in the bypass reach and making sure there’s better and more effective passage at Turners Falls.”
Although the federal government has backed away from its efforts to restore Atlantic salmon to the river, he said that state programs remain in place to assure that shad, sturgeon and other species can navigate downstream and return upstream to spawn.
“Anything moving up and down river to complete its life cycle and do its job needs to have safe and effective passage,” Fisk said. The interrelationship of the hydroelectric projects up and down the river is itself a concern, said Miner, especially given the more competitive regime after deregulation.
“Right now, they don’t talk to one another very well,”said Miner of First Light, TransCanada and Holyoke Gas and Electric, which owns and operates the Holyoke hydro dam. “Those flows are proprietary under deregulation Better coordination would be great to achieve.”
Fisk said he would also like to see better coordination of public access and recreational facilities.
“We’d be interested in seeing a recreational plan with plenty of opportunities for brainstorming and improving opportunities,” said Fisk, explaining that access for paddlers and kayakers, as well as portage and camping areas would be good to see addressed.
Although the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant, which has been embroiled in controversy over the effect of its release of cooling water into the river at Vernon, is not directly part of the FERC proceedings, that issue is expected to be raised, at least indirectly.
“We will make the argument that it’s hard to parse out the effect it’s having with the (Vernon Dam) impoundment right where you have the release of lots of hot water,” said Andrea Donlon, the watershed council’s river steward.
Also, Fisk added, any change in operation at Vermont Yankee — for example, if the state of Vermont decides not to issue a Certificate of Public Good needed for the nuclear plant’s continued operation — could have an impact on Northfield Mountain, which was designed to generate peak power to balance the generating load of Vermont Yankee.
Balance, said Fisk, is also key in the relicensing process, which will be followed in late February with a call by various agencies for studies that need to be completed for formal regulatory proceedings to take place by 2016.