Guest columnist Karl Meyer: End the River-killing Free Ride for FirstLight

  • FirstLight Hydro Generating Co.’s Northfield Mountain turbine hall in Northfield. COURTESY FIRSTLIGHT POWER

Published: 11/15/2021 12:34:58 PM

Domenic Poli’s Nov. 6 hydropower article and quotes from “industry professionals” were of great interest. As an intervener in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s nine-year-old relicensing for FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, the assertions of communications and government affairs director Leonard Greene were of particular import. Greene claims FirstLight’s Massachusetts facilities should be subsidized by federal tax dollars via a giant reconciliation bill. He wants our money to fund decades-overdue fish passage protections at private FirstLight facilities.

FirstLight is owned by Canadian venture capital giant Public Sector Pension Investments — an arm of the Treasury Board of Canada. Greene didn’t mention that, nor that its Northfield and Turners Falls holdings are now registered wholly outside Massachusetts as Delaware tax shelters. I wonder if Mr. Greene has had to register as a foreign lobbyist.

If there was ever a reason to give millions to a recently-arrived foreign capital outfit that quickly sidestepped taxable obligations via Pandora-like 2018 Delaware registrations, that absurd prize goes to FirstLight. Let’s subsidize mandated requirements at highly profitable river facilities that have devastated the aquatic life of an ecosystem for 49 years. Following the money, FirstLight’s subsidy map ultimately heads to Canada — where PSP, a $20 billion outfit, reported an 18% increase in profits this June. That’s one fishy scheme for the river at the core of the S.O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.

Safe up and downstream fish passage has been required of businesses on the public’s river since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1872 landmark finding in Holyoke Co. v. Lyman. PSP arrived 144 years later. Basic due diligence would find them fully aware of obligations under U.S. federal and state environmental law. Yet they’re angling here for corporate welfare.

Northfield’s Connecticut River-based pumped storage has been an unmitigated environmental disaster for 49 years. There’s nothing clean or renewable about it. With its annual obliteration of millions juvenile American shad alone, it’s been operated outside environmental statutes since the day it was finished.

This is not hydropower. This is an anti-gravity contraption massively feeding off the power grid and the aquatic life of a river to pull it backward and uphill to exploit the deadened weight of its water.

Northfield has a massive carbon footprint, profiting these many years off grid electricity overwhelmingly comprised of climate-scorching natural gas since 2014, when the Vermont Yankee nuke shut down.

As I write this day (Nov. 10), ISO-New England’s charts show Northfield’s consumption to force a river uphill is comprised of 57% climate-scorching natural gas, 28% imported nuclear, 6% renewable, and 8% actual hydropower — largely imported from Canada. Its parasitic grid consumption is often supercharged by natural gas at rates of 70% and more.

It is an atmospheric disaster as well as the annual killer of hundreds of millions of fish and aquatic animals. The massive wattage wasted daily to push the river uphill to a 4-billion-gallon reservoir will only later be used to regenerate 1/3 less energy for a few hours, mornings and afternoons, pushed back out onto the grid at peak buy-low/sell-high prices, marketed to distant buyers.

Major mistakes by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Northfield’s federal licensing decades back led to the long-failed migratory fish passage and protections in Massachusetts. Two dozen fish species, their eggs and young remain exposed to Northfield’s deadly sucking mouth. Thus the Connecticut can still claim its place as “the nation’s best landscaped sewer” here in Massachusetts.

Northfield’s current license expired on April 30, 2018. FirstLight has played with house money ever since — without any mandated fish passage or legal protections undertaken.

There’s been one year illustrating a small sample of Northfield’s grim impacts on migrating fish. On May 1, 2010, the plant choked on its own effluent as employees tried to flush a mountain of accumulated sludge from its reservoir. Caught dumping the sludge from their giant pipes directly to the river, FirstLight was sanctioned by the EPA, shutting Northfield down into November. Yet for over half a year no New Englander had to live by candlelight. ISO-New England’s claims that Northfield’s river killing was essential for daily grid operations proved patently false.

With Northfield silenced for six months, its reversing diversions and surges on the Connecticut stopped — and shad passage at Turners Falls skyrocketed 430% above 2009 numbers. That single-season surge proved 800% above grim yearly averages tallied there since Northfield began operating under energy deregulation in 2000. It’s time to silence Northfield, not subsidize its devastation.

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