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My Turn: Vt. Yankee closing pushes us closer to energy cliff

Entergy’s recent decision to decommission Vermont Yankee’s 620 megawatts of nuclear electricity generation by the end of 2014 brings to light a growing problem for New England’s electricity grid: reliability. Since 2003, New England has increased its reliance on natural gas for electricity generation by 30 percent. The Vermont Yankee announcement means that New England ratepayers will be even more beholden to the fluctuations of the natural gas markets and the intermittence of when the wind blows. More fuel diversity for reliable, affordable base-load power is needed.

The New England Independent System Operator recently stated: “The retirement of this large nuclear station will result in less fuel diversity and greater dependence on natural gas as a fuel for power generation. . . . The ISO has identified New England’s dependence on natural gas for power generation and the potential retirement of generators as key strategic risks and is developing solutions to address these and other strategic challenges.”

Compounding the problem is the limited natural gas pipeline capacity in New England. Right now, most of the firm supply for natural gas capacity is contracted to local distribution companies for home heating fuel. This means that in the winter when the thermometer drops, local distribution companies are first in line for natural gas. Electricity generators are left to fight over what is left – often at a price premium. That price premium is passed onto the utilities, competitive suppliers and ultimately the ratepayers. This past winter, due to tight restrictions on natural gas supply, marginal rates for electricity soared to 20 cents per kilowatt-hour. Even this summer, during a July heatwave in the Northeast, marginal rates soared to 40 cents per kilowatt-hour – all because of our overreliance on natural gas that is magnified by New England’s geographical location near the end of the pipeline. At least in the near term, the possibility of supply disruptions, electricity price spikes and blackouts is going to go higher until natural gas pipeline capacity is expanded – and even then it may not be enough.

In 2012, natural gas and nuclear generation accounted for approximately 80 percent of the electricity generated in the region. If nuclear plants continue to close, coal plants shutter and we can’t gain access to natural gas supply – where is inexpensive and reliable power going to come from? Some will argue for increased renewables – namely solar and wind projects. But they are very expensive resources, requiring massive taxpayer subsidies. Not only is the cost prohibitive, but they are intermittent power sources—not the base-load power we need to replace sources like Vermont Yankee. The intermittent nature of wind and solar also require natural gas combustion turbines to be on “spinning reserve” which does nothing to mitigate the natural gas supply shocks that plague New England. Compounding the problem is that those reserve units still have to be paid to be ready, which means ratepayers get hit twice – once for expensive wind power and then again for the “spinning reserve” charges.

One generation source that can provide us with affordable and reliable base-load electricity is large-scale hydropower. States like Washington, Oregon and Idaho, which have large-scale hydro as a prominent generation source in their electricity portfolios have some of the lowest electricity costs in the country – in some cases less than half of what New England ratepayers pay.

One project that could provide this type of relief to the region is the proposed Northern Pass project, which will bring 1,200 megawatts of reliable, affordable, base-load hydroelectric power from Canada. There are still many questions officials need to ask about the project such as: What is the status of the power-purchase agreement between PSNH and Hydro-Quebec? Do we know what ratepayers will pay for this agreement? Are ratepayers at risk for the cost of construction for the project? Will New Hampshire ratepayers, who are most affected by the project’s infrastructure, receive direct benefits from the project through the power-purchase agreement? Will Northern Pass benefit ratepayers throughout New England by lowering the marginal rates paid by the New England Independent System Operator?

These questions notwithstanding, those who oppose Northern Pass based on the transmission corridor would be remiss to overlook the potential benefits to not only reliability, but also the affordability of hydroelectricity provided by the Northern Pass Project.

The likelihood of new nuclear or coal plants being built in New England is slim to none. Combine that with a restricted pipeline capacity that will handcuff natural gas generators, and you have limited options to a dwindling base-load power supply that has become over-reliant on natural gas. ISO has gone on record as stating that we are going to have to replace an expected 8,000 megawatts of retired capacity in the not-too-distant future.

With the closing of one of the last nuclear plants in the region, Northern Pass is going to have to be part of the solution.

(Marc Brown is executive director of the New England Ratepayers Association.)

Legacy Comments8

While Canadian hydro power may be of help in diversifying our sources of generation in the future, the proposed no. pass project is a major problem for NH - not part of a solution. Just because some predatory developers from CT are willing to trash our state and our property values and risk our health and safety so they can try to cash in on NH's lack of regulation in this area [ no. pass would be illegal in CT ] doesn't mean we have to let them. VT and NY got their line from Canada buried all the way to NYC - for a similar cost per mile as no. pass overhead - in addition to an appealing benefit package - not like the chump change offered to us by no. pass. They have fought to ensure there would be no consideration of this comparison by the DOE - no wonder, huh? Apparently they think we're just a bunch of backwoods rubes that don't know any better. We all want the benefits of renewable energy but this proposal does more harm to NH than good. We aren't second class citizens in NH and won't tolerate this attempt to steal our property values, our scenic beauty, our dignity, or anything else. People need to let their Reps. know what they think of this so there's no confusion about where NH stands. If they won't bury it all the way, someone else will.

Thanks for two very articulate posts. Could you possibly provide more specific information as to your points: “instead of just burying it by the interstate where it belongs is so PSNH/NU can monopolize the huge transmission fees instead of sharing them with the state of NH”; and “consideration of this comparison by the DOE”?

Fear mongering seems to be all that no. pass proponents have left. Conveniently left out of the ISO-NE regulator's statements regarding VT Yankee was their assurance that the closing would NOT affect the reliability of the New England grid - as reported on the front page of the Manchester Union Leader on the day of the closing announcement. It surely shouldn't affect NH where we already generate twice the amount of power that we consume, let alone justify the trashing of our state and the hit to tourism and private property values. This article seems more like a justification and call for additional gas pipeline than anything else. Anyone can start a non-profit and claim to be dedicated to protecting utility ratepayers - even if their real motive is attempting to generate support for highly profitable private projects. If Mr. Brown is really concerned with utility rates, he must also be trying to get the word out about how much people can save if they switch their electricity provider from PSNH to any of the many competitors now allowed into the market. It has been reported that about 100,000 people already have. I wonder why I haven't heard him mention that? Some of the real questions that are important to people in NH are listed in the full page ad on page A3 in yesterday's Concord Monitor. These questions remain unanswered - and for good reason. The real reason for the proposal to string 187 miles of towers as high as 150 feet and carrying as much power as Seabrook at full output through the most pristine areas of NH as well as neighborhoods and backyards instead of just burying it by the interstate where it belongs is so PSNH/NU can monopolize the huge transmission fees instead of sharing them with the state of NH. The power from this proposal is needed in southwest CT, near NYC, not in NH - although we are being railroaded into bearing the burden and destruction of it's transmission in a snaking and convoluted route that makes no sense except for it's ability to selfishly restrict the profits to NU/PSNH while forcing us to subsidize their proposal with our decreased property values and potential health risks from falling lines and towers and EMF radiation. This isn't just unacceptable, it's un-American.

To be educated each reader should research the ITER project going on in France sponsored by 38 countries. The new energy future is already here

To be educated, readers should research the information provided by the Forest Society and others right here in NH where no. pass is proposing to run these hundreds of miles of huge towers. They have studied the issues and their interests are our interests. They aren't trying to exploit us like some out of state predatory developers with dollar signs in their eyes.

"The likelihood of new nuclear or coal plants being built in New England is slim to none."...Slim does not even enter into it...it's NONE. I believe in the very near future, Seabrook 1 will suffer the same fate as Seabrook 2. And no one wants a windfarm anywhere in NH. And solar has the same problem as wind...you still need “spinning reserve”. And NP...even if they do bury it, is how many years away? So that leaves us with a over reliance on gas. And we wouldn't even have that if the anti fracking crowd had their way. I really believe most people dont even understand the basics of getting electricity to your home, even more dont understand the basics of an electrical power generation plant. They just flip the switch, and it magically happens.

We already have wind, hydro, and biomass for renewables in NH but no solar even though NH has a considerably higher solar rating than VT that has at least two solar generation sites that I've seen just driving through. The price of solar has dropped significantly to the point where it should be given some serious consideration at least in a limited capacity. VT used what looked like an old coal generation site for solar as it already had the necessary infrastructure in place.

NP is a national security issue as is the Keystone pipeline and the visual Purists NIMBYS are simply un-American

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