Guest columnist: FirstLight Power's lousy deal for the public

  • FILE PHOTOConnecticut River

Published: 9/27/2021 8:37:50 PM

$130 million is a big number — until it isn’t.

  FirstLight Power, the owner of hydropower facilities in Massachusetts and Connecticut, is seeking new federal licenses to operate its two Massachusetts facilities, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage project and the Turners Falls hydroelectric project. When issued, the company is granted another 40-50 years to generate electricity for the New England grid.

The Connecticut River Conservancy and many other stakeholders want to be sure that in exchange for this license, the public gets a good deal for the use of its river. And right now, FirstLight Power’s deal is a lousy one.

FirstLight Power professes they will invest over $130 million in these projects to improve river health and public facilities. Let’s put that in some context. The company purchased these facilities in 2016 for $1.2 billion in 2016 and in a recent filing they reported $195 million revenue in 2019.

FirstLight says they are investing between $27 million and $45 million (they have different numbers depending on where you look) in improved fish passage. What they don’t say is the amount of money they saved while ignoring upgrades needed for the decadeslong failure of the current fish ladder at Turners Falls and the absence of any fish barriers at Northfield Mountain. If FirstLight Power was serious about the restoration of migratory fish, they would have acted years ago.

What else is the public getting for this money? Let’s look closer at the company’s $5.6 million in recreation improvements. They note $1.2 million of that total is to relocate a boat dock so they can install a fish barrier net at the entrance to Northfield Mountain. Really? To move a dock? And shouldn’t they have put that barrier in 50 years ago? Another peek at $1.6 million of the $5.6 million shows us they believe they need this much to improve the incredibly poor access facility at Poplar Street in Montague. Considering this has been a haphazard and dangerous way to access the river for decades, why do they get props for a grossly overestimated — and vague – proposal to fix a problem of their own making?

FirstLight Power says they are investing $5 million in dredging the upper reservoir of Northfield Mountain to remove the accumulated sediment from pumping the Connecticut River uphill. They claim this is a public benefit, which is beyond us.

The simplest way to see their entire proposal is “we want more generating capacity and in exchange we will fix problems of our own making.” Where’s the additional benefits to the public?

Let’s not forget that FirstLight Power has worked hard to reduce its taxes by using expensive lawyers to strong-arm towns. As one example, in Montague, after the town won a state ruling that their proposed assessment was fair, FirstLight Power’s team of lawyers threatened another appeal forcing the town’s hand given the expenses of litigation. The end result? FirstLight’s prior CEO John Shue negotiated the return of $790,000 to their coffers and a flat assessment through 2022.

Let’s also look at the revenue side of the ledger in evaluating this $130 million. When a number of these projects are implemented they will likely qualify for green certification, which means increased revenue. When we pointed this out to them and suggested what we thought these improvements would net them, we never got a response. It’s always a litany of costs with no information about what they stand to earn. And the pending federal investments in infrastructure appear to give hydropower generators like FirstLight Power a buffet of public subsidies to offset the costs of equipment and facility upgrades.

Last but not least, they want to change state energy policy to favor pumped hydro. Current state policy supports advanced battery storage over pumped storage because advanced batteries can be located at key grid spots and respond in seconds, not minutes or hours. FirstLight is arguing they should be protected from the open market and given a 10-20 year contract price for electricity from Northfield Mountain. This would, you guessed it, make them more money. To try to get this deal they have invested $390,000 in Beacon Hill lobbyists in 2019 and 2020.

We’re not against FirstLight Power making a reasonable return on their investment, but they should get that only after fixing the negative impacts they’ve gotten away with for decades and making a better deal with the public. That means being transparent and telling us the whole story about their revenue and expenses.

You can learn how to speak up at or

Andrew Fisk, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Connecticut River Conservancy, formerly the Connecticut River Watershed Council in Greenfield.

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