Do we really want to give Big Coal a Blank Check with Our Money?

We are at a crossroads in New Hampshire, where we must decide whether to invest hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of dollars to keep an aging coal plant running to meet basic environmental safeguards, or to begin investing in clean, renewable energy sources. Today our State Legislature begins debate on a bill that would force a reconsideration of an expensive retrofitting project that will invest New Hampshire ratepayer dollars in 20th century technology.

Here's an email we sent to New Hampshire residents about the choice we face -- a choice that utilities across America must make between investing in the dirty technology of the past or renewable energy solutions for the future:

Did you know that 20% of New Hampshire's carbon footprint comes from one place?

It does -- the Merrimack Station coal fired power plant in Bow. The plant is over 40 years old, and the cost to update it to keep up with modern pollution control technology is staggering. In 2006, the New Hampshire legislature authorized the building of a scrubber to reduce the high levels of toxic mercury that is released annually from its stacks - at a price tag of $250 million. However, Public Service Company of New Hampshire (PSNH) now says they need $457 million of ratepayers' money to complete it -- and it will do nothing to reduce the plant's carbon problem.

Here's a funny thing about this - PSNH is entitled to charge ratepayers 100% of the costs of this project.

Here's another funny thing - They are guaranteed a 9.8% rate of return on every dollar, so this scrubber will not only give an almost completely depreciated plant a new lease on life, but PSNH will get a minimum of $17 million dollars PER YEAR in guaranteed new profits if they complete this project.

In other words, PSNH has zero incentive to do anything other than get this project installed.

If you live in New Hampshire, click here to tell your State Senator that this is not in OUR interest.

A lot more than the price tag has changed since 2006. For instance, EVERYTHING - a global consensus that we need to move quickly and decisively to reduce coal burning, an economy screaming for new 21st Century solutions, a new administration committed to delivering them, announced plans for new tougher mercury and carbon and cooling regulations which will bring higher costs, moratoriums on new coal plants all across the US and much much more.

Accordingly, a group of ratepayers has asked the state to review whether it is still a good idea to commit our money to essentially build a plant we don't need (we've got 5-10 Merrimack Stations worth of extra capacity in New England right now) that will commit us to what could be billions of dollars of expected compliance costs to get a cleaner, but still very dirty plant for the next 15 years.

Not surprisingly, PSNH naturally is lobbying incredibly hard that this is still a really good deal for us ratepayers. They've gotten the unions and residents of Bow all worked up and very fearful that the study could result in the loss of certain jobs and tax revenues. As a result, an innocent request that someone other than PSNH take a pause to gather some facts to reassure us that our money is being well spent has turned into an emotional and intense debate.

But the ratepayers have persisted and now have SB 152 being debated at the State Senate. SB 152 would require the PUC to do this very reasonable study. And the PUC agrees that it can be done in 90 days.

And this won't delay the scrubber at all. In fact, PSNH tells us they are already a year ahead of schedule.

It sounds reasonable that the ratepayers should get some objective assurance, doesn't it?

But here's the "funniest" thing of all. Without the passage of SB152, there will be no study. Putting it differently, the only way that we citizens and ratepayers can get an objective review and any say about whether it is a good idea to proceed with NH's most expensive and significant energy infrastructure project undertaken by PSNH since Seabrook, is to get this bill passed.

Is it really worth $457 million, let alone billions of our dollars to keep dirty coal technology on life support, when it takes us in the exactly wrong direction from where we need to move on climate, and won't even eliminate mercury pollution?

There's only one way to know. We need SB152.

If you live in New Hampshire, click here and tell your State Senator to support SB 152.

This project is just the tip of the iceberg in what will be years of costly investments needed to keep the plant in compliance with minimal environmental expected safeguards. Experts are putting this cost as high as $2.9 billion. That's over $6,000 per New Hampshire household.There has got to be a better, cheaper and cleaner way to produce the energy New Hampshire needs. The SB 152 study will give us that answer.

New Hampshire's clean energy future should not be based on 20th century dirty technology without this analysis. Blindly investing billions of dollars to continue operating a coal plant that moves us further away from our carbon reduction goals is not sound policy, not the direction our country is headed in, and not in the interests of our children and grandchildren. If passed, this bill will require an examination into the true costs of continuing to operate Merrimack Station, and allow our elected officials to make informed decisions about the next step in achieving New Hampshire's clean energy future.

We are at an important cross road and your voice is needed. The coal industry is spending enormous sums of money on lobbyists to wage a campaign of misinformation to stop this bill from moving through the legislature, and to stop you from finding out the truth about the true costs of Merrimack Station to ratepayers, to the future of clean energy development and to our planet.

New Hampshire residents: our legislature needs to hear from you, not lobbyists for the coal industry, about New Hampshire's energy future.

Gary Hirshberg
21st Century New Hampshire