The dirty truth of Northfield Mountain’s ‘clean’ energy
Pumped storage facility did not save the region's power grid
CLARIFICATION: Northfield Mountain officials raised several issues with this commentary following its publication that prompted clarification and wording tweaks. The pumped storage facility is not powered by natural gas; it is powered by electricity from the power grid, which typically is produced using natural gas. The parent company of Northfield is not a venture capital firm but a pension investment fund. The point of energy storage is not to produce power, but to store it for use when it is needed. And the facility is monitored and regulated by state and local agencies.
ON FEBRUARY 11, CommonWealth published a commentary by FirstLight Power CEO Alicia Barton bragging of the Christmas Eve grid-rescuing heroics of her company’s Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station. She went on to describe Northfield as a “zero-emissions” power plant that helped save New England from a natural gas energy squeeze. There were holes in her contentions, and she failed to mention all the other elephants in the room.
Northfield Mountain, located on the Connecticut River in northwest Massachusetts, is a massive, net-power-loss electric machine, run off ISO-New England’s imported natural gas and nuclear-dominated energy grid. Its daily use halts, cripples, and reverses miles of the Connecticut River. Its turbines annually kill hundreds of millions of eggs, larvae, and juvenile and adult fish, and other assorted aquatic species in a four-state river system.
Yet Barton only gushed about how her suction-and-surge river pump machine, along with other small, traditional hydro facilities, came to New England’s rescue for “over two hours” that day. It spared us “rolling blackouts,” after the ISO-New England power grid faced a market squeeze on available natural gas.
Under scarcity-pricing pressures and contracted energy delivery failures in the market, ISO’s natural gas grid supply stumbled and faded that frigid day, yet no public alerts were issued. Barton contended when Northfield kicked on that afternoon it saved us from a grim holiday fate—the looming Grinch of rolling blackouts in what she termed a “near-miss,”
But ISO-NE never described it as a situation approaching a need for blackouts, later flatly stating “consumer conservation wasn’t necessary.” Setting aside FirstLight’s hype, it was actually rarely used fuel-oil generation by dual-use energy plants that had filled in most of that day’s gas and energy squeeze before Northfield switched up. So, what could have been our fate without hero Northfield Mountain? With over 90 percent of the grid’s juice already steadily flowing by late afternoon, some customers might have noticed their lights seemed dimmer. Whew!
FirstLight is owned by Canadian pension investment fund PSP Investments, which bought the Northfield facility in 2016 and then registered it into a Delaware tax shelter in 2018. Massively subsidized by the inaction of federal and state environmental agencies who’ve ignored its unbridled killing, Northfield has been an ecosystem crime scene since 1972. Today it runs via an extended 1968 Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license—a permit utterly failing a host of unenforced federal and state clean water, flow, wetlands, and fish protection laws.
The New England grid is overwhelmingly natural gas-fueled today. Northfield runs off the self-same scarce stuff Barton proclaimed her grid-dependent unit valiantly rescued us from on Christmas Eve. It’s like an arsonist showing up at a fire and grabbing a garden hose to squirt on smoldering ashes. She described Northfield as “my company’s largest clean power plant – Northfield Mountain, in Western Mass. – is a zero-emissions pumped-hydro facility.” She mentions the Connecticut River not once—nor that Northfield can only function by massively exploiting the river’s flow daily, extinguishing the riot of aquatic life entrained in its suction-cycling turbines.
Northfield has never created a lightbulb’s worth of its own virgin electricity. It can’t. It consumes 25 percent or more power than it later reproduces, by regularly reversing miles of river in a 20-mile reach. Barton says her plant is “capable of delivering clean electricity to more than 1.3 million homes for eight hours a day, each day.” Perhaps. But it can only accomplish its eight-hour energy flush once, on a single-day basis — dumping back that dead water until Northfield’s reservoir is depleted. Then it must start all over, tapping back into the river to replenish the reservoir. And that net loss? Before sending out a watt of that short-term resale electricity to 1.3 million homes, Northfield has already had to consume the energy of over 1.625 million homes.Northfield runs on a buy-low/sell-high model. It buys up cheap (or even no-cost “negatively priced”) megawatts available on the grid at night to inhale continuous, 15,000-cubic-feet-per-second gulps from the Connecticut River, sucking it a mile uphill to a giant reservoir. It sucks up the equivalent of the aquatic life contained in seven, three-bedroom homes every second for hours and then flushes it back through turbines to generate electricity. It does that killing in the midst of our so-called National Blueway, along a river reach encompassing parts of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.
In 2010 the EPA ordered Northfield shut down after FirstLight got caught dumping thousands of truckloads of its accumulated sludge into the Connecticut River across 90 straight days. It remained shuttered from May 1 until early November for gross violation of the Clean Water Act. No one lost power; the grid ran fine. But once its massive suctioning cycles stopped the Connecticut River became a river again in Massachusetts. Five miles downstream, migrating American shad experienced a stunning 800 percent jump in upstream passage success at Turners Falls dam. Another 14,000 more spawning-run fish swam toward Vermont and New Hampshire waters.
Today’s financially-insulated energy elites and CEOs, including ISO-New England, the operator of the region’s power grid, appear often in CommonWealth. They never talk the urgent sense of consuming less energy. Meanwhile, the general public remains essentially excluded from the region’s critical energy decisions. Today’s ISO market with its giant, complex capital interests and delivery system, remains a secretive, incestuous, climate-agnostic, sales bazaar–one that appears destined to fail our ecosystems and our children’s futures.
And Alicia Barton wants a new 50-year Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license for her “clean” Delaware-registered, machine. She wants to run it even more, murdering a river using power from distant, ocean-produced wind megawatts–only to later send the power of its pumped-storage system hundreds of miles away, to the coastal cities bypassed when the wind power was originally purchased. The elephants in the room keep multiplying.
Karl Meyer has been a stakeholder, intervenor, and member of the Fish and Aquatics Studies Team who has participated in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing bid for Northfield Mountain since 2012. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and lives in Greenfield.