My Turn: Shut the coal plants; then let’s have a bigger discussion
Recently I have gotten involved with an effort by Citizens for Clean and Fair Power and Toxic Actions Center to have Public Service of New Hampshire close the Merrimack Station coal-fired plant in Bow and the Schiller Station in Portsmouth. The reasons for doing this are many.
Both plants are old and costly to run and have resulted in higher rates for PSNH customers. Since the deregulation of energy sales in New Hampshire, 55 percent of PSNH customers have left for other power companies. The history of the plant and the scrubber is hard to follow, but what is clear is that the decision to build the scrubber was shortsighted, and PSNH wants to pass the cost onto the ratepayers.
Back when the scrubber was initially discussed, Stonyfield Farms, inventor Dean Kamen and Timberland President Jeffrey Swartz formed a group called 21st Century New Hampshire that petitioned the state to reconsider its position on the scrubber. They believed the aging plants should be shut down because of their environmental impact and that the investment in the scrubber would only add costs to an unavoidable future closing of the plants. The scrubber was first estimated to cost $257 million and ended up costing $450 million. At the time, Symbiotic Strategies LLC, energy analysts, determined that PSNH would have to spend an additional $864 million to $2.5 billion to meet future requirements on greenhouse gas and mercury emissions. They estimated the cost to ratepayers would be three to six times higher than the estimated increase due to the scrubber, which at the time was 0.33 cents per Kwh. The cost today is 1 cent per Kwh, and PSNH is applying to the state Public Utilities Commission for an additional 2 cents per Kwh.
PSNH spokesman Martin Murray has characterized the call to shut down the coal plants as extremely shortsighted, yet the PUC’s recent report suggests that PSNH divest itself of the power plants. The commission wrote that its analysis shows that the fossil units have very little market value. Susan Chamberlin, the consumer advocate at the PUC, was quoted in a June 10 Union Leader article as saying: “Right now, residential ratepayers are paying the majority of the cost for PSNH power plants, and the plants just are not economical.”
PSNH has filed an appeal to the state Supreme Court on recent decisions by the PUC on whether the utility can pass the costs of the scrubber at the Bow plant on to the customers. These are the same customers who are leaving PSNH due to the deregulation of energy sales. I am not sure how Murray defines shortsighted, but the numbers and the history of the plant tell a different story.
How did we get here, and how does PSNH and New Hampshire move forward? For me, a recent grandfather and firm believer that this planet is a rare gift to be protected for future generations, the answer on moral terms is simple, but the implementation is more complicated. We are bombarded with articles about Northern Pass, wind farms and the aging fossil fuel and nuclear power plants. These are topics that incite strong emotions. Climate change has sadly become a political topic rather than a survival topic. From the moment that Apollo 8 took the first picture from space of the Earth as a beautiful blue marble, encouraging the celebration of the first Earth Day, to today when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just released an assessment demonstrating that humans are largely responsible for global warming as a result of burning fossil fuels and deforestation, we have made some strides for clean air and water, but we can do better.
The discussion cannot happen solely on an economic level.
If we are concerned about the financial debt we are leaving our children, then surely we must concern ourselves with the burden of the environmental debt. Coal-fired plants are responsible for 40 percent of our carbon emissions nationwide. In New England they are responsible for only 3 percent of the electrical generation but are responsible for millions of tons of carbon emission. Loons, due to their position on the food chain, are like the canary in the coal mine. They are now a species of concern in New Hampshire and endangered in Vermont due to mercury and lead poisoning.
We are told to limit the number of fish we eat from our rivers and lakes, and pregnant women are warned against eating them at all due to mercury and lead emissions. We are warned to limit our outdoor activities on more and more days in the summer when the blue sky and horizon is replaced by a murky mix of emissions.
We can do better, but we need to have a transparent discussion of all the inter-related topics together in a nonpoliticized environment.
Closing the aged, uneconomical coal fired plants is the first step, but then we need to have a discussion that says yes to something and gives us a clean path for moving forward.
I call on PSNH, the PUC, the Legislature and the governor to move forward with closing Merrimack Station and the Schiller plant and to have that bigger discussion with all the energy producers in the state to address the concerns with Northern Pass and the wind farms and eventually fossil fuel energy production in all forms. Let’s work together to find an economic and environmentally friendly path forward for the future and our children. Let’s start making choices so that next time we see an article on renewable and clean energy, New Hampshire is leading the way. This is a great country and we can find the solutions. It is time to stop politicizing environmental issues so we can reach the yes.
(Ian Blackman lives in Chichester.)