M/cloudy
63°
M/cloudy
Hi 62° | Lo 47°

Extreme weather a testament to Bow plant's relevance?

  • Steam rises from the scrubber at Merrimack Station, PSNH's largest power plant; Wednesday, July 17, 2013.The New England grid is expecting to meet or exceed record energy production on Thursday or Friday.<br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

    Steam rises from the scrubber at Merrimack Station, PSNH's largest power plant; Wednesday, July 17, 2013.The New England grid is expecting to meet or exceed record energy production on Thursday or Friday.
    (ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

  • An up-to-date price from the wholesale price for power in new Hampshire displays in the Merrimack Station control room; Wednesday, July 17, 2013.The New England grid is expecting to meet or exceed record energy production this week.<br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

    An up-to-date price from the wholesale price for power in new Hampshire displays in the Merrimack Station control room; Wednesday, July 17, 2013.The New England grid is expecting to meet or exceed record energy production this week.
    (ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

  • Transmission lines lead from unit 1 of Merrimack Station.<br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor file)

    Transmission lines lead from unit 1 of Merrimack Station.
    (ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor file)

  • Control room operator Gary Tardie checks a dial on unit of Merrimack Station; Wednesday, July 17, 2013. At full power the coal fire plant produces 478 Megawatts of electricity per day using 4,000 tons of coal. The New England grid is expecting to meet or exceed record energy production this week.<br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

    Control room operator Gary Tardie checks a dial on unit of Merrimack Station; Wednesday, July 17, 2013. At full power the coal fire plant produces 478 Megawatts of electricity per day using 4,000 tons of coal. The New England grid is expecting to meet or exceed record energy production this week.
    (ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

  • Steam rises from the scrubber at Merrimack Station, PSNH's largest power plant; Wednesday, July 17, 2013.The New England grid is expecting to meet or exceed record energy production on Thursday or Friday.<br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)
  • An up-to-date price from the wholesale price for power in new Hampshire displays in the Merrimack Station control room; Wednesday, July 17, 2013.The New England grid is expecting to meet or exceed record energy production this week.<br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)
  • Transmission lines lead from unit 1 of Merrimack Station.<br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor file)
  • Control room operator Gary Tardie checks a dial on unit of Merrimack Station; Wednesday, July 17, 2013. At full power the coal fire plant produces 478 Megawatts of electricity per day using 4,000 tons of coal. The New England grid is expecting to meet or exceed record energy production this week.<br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

Two o’clock, Wednesday afternoon, Merrimack Station in Bow. Bill Smagula, vice president of power generation at Public Service of New Hampshire, is wearing a hard hat and earplugs, and standing next to a turbine the size of a railcar. The air is uncomfortably hot. Smagula, trying but failing to outcompete the loud drone of the machine, shouts something about megawatts and coal reserves and revolutions per minute.

This is the world that Smagula and the 100 or so employees who operate the state’s largest coal-fired power plant have known for decades. And though the plant runs far less frequently than it did just years ago, due largely to the cascading price of natural gas, on days like these, when temperatures tip into the 90s and energy consumption across New England rises to near-record levels, it’s busy.

“We’re here all the time, but we’re here especially for conditions like this,” Smagula said. “This is our game day.”

Debate has intensified recently over the future of PSNH’s power generating assets: A regulatory report issued last month said the utility’s fossil-fuel plants have “minimal economic value”; legislators met this week to discuss whether it should divest some or all of its power facilities; data released Monday showed that it is hemorrhaging default energy customers. But Smagula and others point to periods of extreme weather, when the demand for energy climbs and gas supplies near capacity, as evidence that plants such as Merrimack still matter.

Energy consumption in New England soared yesterday to nearly 27,000 megawatts – among the 10 highest peaks on record (the highest was Aug. 2, 2006, at 28,130 megawatts).

ISO New England, which manages the region’s energy grid, has requested that residents and businesses conserve electricity in any way they can, be it shutting off lights, adjusting thermostats up a few degrees or postponing laundry and other energy-dependent chores until evening and morning hours. Scheduled maintenance on transmission lines or power plants has been temporarily delayed to free up all available power supplies.

The region has not and is unlikely

in coming days to experience a power shortage, said ISO spokeswoman Marcia Blomberg. Temperatures today are predicted to peak at 96 degrees, with humidity pushing the heat index to a stifling 101 degrees, but conditions are forecast to cool over the weekend. And even if supply did fall short, Blomberg said, there are a number of ways to protect the grid, such as paying large businesses to reduce consumption, purchasing energy from a neighboring region or calling on suppliers such as PSNH to operate their emergency generators.

All three of PSNH’s fossil fuel plants were operating yesterday, as they were Wednesday, and the day before, and the day before that. And that’s significant, Smagula said, because without the hundreds of megawatts they can provide daily during periods of peak demand, the region’s grid would be less reliable.

In addition, by generating its own power, he said, PSNH is less exposed to price fluctuations or a sudden run on natural gas, as happened multiple times this winter.

“We have a diverse fleet (of plants) and diverse fuel source, which includes coal, oil, hydro, biomass and natural gas,” Smagula said. “And that allows us a lot of flexibility . . . during high-load periods like all winter and all summer that save our customers money.”

Companies that solely buy and sell energy hedge against the possibility of a sudden increase in demand, meaning they purchase what they believe they will need for a given period. If they bet incorrectly and demand unexpectedly grows beyond their supply, they are forced to purchase additional power at a market rate, which rises with demand.

In other words, they lose money. And, if repeated over time, those losses can prove sizable.

But not everyone thinks the “insurance” that PSNH provides to the grid and its energy customers is a net positive, including authorities at the Public Utilities Commission, which regulates PSNH and released last month’s report. The concern is that the utility’s electricity prices, though relatively stable, are more costly than those of independent suppliers, which has pushed customers away and left fewer of them to shoulder the high costs of maintaining facilities such as Merrimack Station.

One thing is clear: Coal contributes far less regionally than it once did, and plants, such as Merrimack Station, run at a fraction of the rate than they did a decade ago. Output at Merrimack Station has dropped to about a third of its overall capacity, according to PUC data; five years ago, it was 75 percent. Plant managers haven’t made any large layoffs, but they have significantly cut back on overtime and outsourced labor, said PSNH spokesman Martin Murray.

But Merrimack does play a part, especially during weeks such as this.

On Wednesday, after Smagula finished showing a group of journalists the outdoor components of the plant, he led them back into the quiet, air-conditioned control room where their tour began. An electronic ticker on the wall was flashing the price of energy in real time. In a half hour it had jumped 12.5 cents per kilowatt/hour – evidence of a soaring demand.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

Legacy Comments6

Independant suppliers don't own the equipment but rather buy short and long term contracts from the actual groups that run the generators. It works out while when it is neither to hot or two cold. However a prolonged cold spell means homes are using up natural gas and they are priority one for distribution. Due to limited pipeline capacity a high demand means a lack of supply but the short sighted fall to remember the lessons of the 1970's when we had prolonged cold spells and factories and schools shut down because there was not enough natural gas supply to met demand.

No business would maintain a fleet of outdated, dirty, and inefficient power plants in order to use them a few days a year unless they had a sweetheart deal that paid them to let them sit idle like in this case. That control room photo looks like something from the 1950's. If there's a problem, they probably crank the telephone and tell Jenny to get help. No more bailouts, "stranded cost charges", or "entitlements" from ratepayers. Enough is enough.

One only needs to research the Northfield Mountain Reservoir Power plant to learn why that statement is wrong

remember this article when you see a post from all those leftie alarmists that oppose the Northern Pass and Keystone pipeline

Wake up. Notice they do not identify what NH produces versus what it consumes for electricity,we produce twice as much as we use. NH does not need northern pass, Connectict does. Let them build a transmission line from the proposed Narragansett bay wind turbine farm to Connecticut , oh wait the Kennedy's and their ilk do not want to look at it. This has nothing do do with security, it all about dividends for NU

WAKE UP and learn how an electrical GRID works

Post a Comment

You must be registered to comment on stories. Click here to register.