Monday, August 29, 2011

Hurricane Irene and Hydro-Quebec

This post is in the category of "you have to wonder why." You have to wonder why PSNH chose Hydro-Quebec to supplement its own repair crews in the wake of Hurricane Irene.

As soon as PSNH began talking to the public about its preparations for the upcoming Hurricane Irene, it was clear what was Rule #1 in the playbook: tell New Hampshire citizens about the 100 line crews coming from Hydro-Quebec, specifically, to help PSNH's 90 crews with the anticipated repairs. Other utility companies were informing customers that repair help would be contracted from Ohio, Tennessee, and other states. Only PSNH named the actual corporation, Hydro-Quebec, that would redeem us. The reason was obvious enough: this was to be not only a repair operation, but a public relations puff for Northern Pass and its purported benefits to New Hampshire.

On Friday and Saturday, first NHPR, then the Concord Monitor, the Union Leader, the Nashua Telegraph, SeacoastOnline, and others media outlets were all repeating PSNH's sacred mantra that 100 line crews from Hydro Quebec would be on the way to help. Indeed, that was all that some of them reported about PSNH's readiness for the storm: 100 crews from Hydro Quebec would be here to lend a hand. The PSNH press release made its way to the Associated Press, and newspapers as far away as Houston were reassuring us that 100 line crews from Hydro Quebec would be here to help.

Make no mistake, the help itself was not unwelcome. We take HQ spokesperson Patrice Lavoie at face value when he said that “we’re always prepared to lend a helping hand to our neighbours. We consider electricity an essential service.” 100 lines crews would more than double PSNH's available help. No one who has lived without power in the aftermath of a major storm would not be grateful for help like that. Another Northeast Utilities's subsidiary, Connecticut Light & Power, had hoped to get assistance from Quebec too, but as Connecticut's Governor Molloy diplomatically phrased it, "crews that originally [were] supposed to come here from Quebec were diverted to deal with storm damage in other states to Connecticut's north." The New Haven Register put it differently: CL&P had sought help from Hydro-Quebec of Canada, "but [H-Q] directed its crews to help in Northern New England." In New Hampshire, that is.

Aside from the public relations spin, that decision made a limited amount of sense: Quebec is a bit closer to New Hampshire than to Connecticut. But what didn't make sense was that H-Q would provide 100 crews to augment PSNH's 90 crews, more than doubling the indigenous repair force. As it turns out, the figure of 100 crews was erroneous. It was actually 54 crews of two people, or 108 line and other workers. Still, NU's and HQ's decision was that New Hampshire was to receive relatively ample aid, to say the least.

What also did not make sense was that our promised redeemer happens to lie to the north of us and might well find itself in the path of the storm a day later. In fact, that is precisely what happened. Tropical Storm Irene blew its way through New Hampshire Sunday and, veering slightly off predicted track, as such storms are wont to do, hit Quebec, especially Montreal and the Eastern Townships, hard on Sunday night and Monday morning. PSNH had some120,000 customers without power at the height of the storm, but a day later H-Q had 250,000 customers in the dark.

H-Q's Patrice Lavoie had earlier promised that "the 54 teams sent to New Hampshire to help with that state's power outages over the weekend would not affect the provincial utility's ability to restore power in Quebec." Lavoie would eat those words soon enough. What did H-Q do late Sunday or early Monday morning when it realized the extent of outage in its home territory? Exactly what one would expect. It pulled the 54 crews out of New Hampshire and brought them home to work in Quebec.

As Quebec radio station CJAD reported on Monday, the troops were en route home:

Hydro Brings Crews Home

Hydro-Quebec has decided to bring the 108 employees it sent to New Hampshire Sunday back home, to help with the power failures here caused by Tropical Storm Irene yesterday.

The workers are expected back sometime during the day.

They were sent south of the border under a mutual aid agreement between Hydro and Northeast Utilities.

Durham NH was understandably disappointed with H-Q's decision to leave New Hampshire behind:

The PSNH Epping Work Center which services Durham is at this time centering its efforts on restoring a main transmission line along Route 4 which will restore power to areas of Madbury, Lee, Barrington, and Strafford.

Unfortunately, a Hydro-Quebec Power reinforcement caravan routed to the Epping Work Center was recalled to Canada in the early hours of [Monday]morning to address Hurricane Irene damage in Canada. These additional crews from Hydro-Quebec were scheduled to arrive this morning as reinforcement for local work center crews.

But Quebec resident Deborah L. cheered the decision in this comment addressed to Hydro-Quebec:

Way to go, I think you need to fix our problems here before you go elsewhere.

If the "100 crews from Hydro Quebec" is yet another public relations fiasco for PSNH, the solution is simple enough: stop the spin. But the botched episode underscores a deeper and more important truth: Hydro-Quebec is a foreign crown corporation and its first loyalty will necessarily be to the people of Quebec and to their needs, not to Americans, whether it is to supply repair crews or electricity itself. In a drought, with low hydro power, Quebec will get priority, not New England. In an ice storm, with interrupted service, Quebec will get priority, not New England. Deborah L. and Quebec vote for the province's premier, New England does not. This surprises no one who has thought at all about the implications of Northern Pass. Hurricane Irene provides a timely lesson for anyone who has not.

Postscript: Brentwood Fire Chief Kevin Lemoine said on Monday afternoon that so far he was "not impressed" with PSNH's response," reports the Union Leader. "We had a lot more damage in the ice storm and the windstorm. Here we're talking about limbs on wires," Lemoine said. "The last PSNH truck I saw was 9 yesterday morning."

After the Hydro-Quebec 108 u-turned and went home on Monday morning, PSNH was scrambling to bring in more utility help. By then, PSNH noted, there was a "premium" on contracted help: 

PSNH said the problem is the extent of the outages up and down the East Coast. The damage was widespread and has placed a premium on line crew resources, PSNH said. Some 50 crews from Hydro-Quebec were supposed to be on hand to help in New Hampshire, but they had to return to Canada to assist with outages there. The utility has more than 100 of its crews and other contract crews working to restore power. PSNH said 75 additional line crews should arrive Monday afternoon. (Union Leader)


A September 2 follow-up post on Hurricane Irene, PSNH, CL&P, and NU is here.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Vox Populi, or, Why Did PSNH Back Out of Talking to Real NH Citizens in Moultonborough on August 24th?

“There is something unique in New Hampshire in the way that citizens work through issues. . . . They do it in personal dialogue by talking with friends. Or talking at a diner or sitting across from someone at the table. When that is the environment, I think you want to communicate in a way that resonates in that environment.”*

So said Marie van Luling, vice president for communications at Northeast Utilities in Hartford Connecticut, on July 1, 2011. When van Luling assumed the Northern Pass leadership role in August, statements like this suggested that a new directness would follow, a willingness on the part of PSNH and NPT to engage in dialogue with New Hampshire citizens, rather than the prevailing one-way, arm’s length communications strategy of bombarding the state with endless misleading ads about everything from broadband to jobs to tax benefits.

Not so on the evening of August 24th in Moultonborough. The promised candor was nowhere in sight. Neither was PSNH. When PSNH heard that three New Hampshire citizens would sit across the table from them to “work through issues” about Northern Pass, they abruptly backed out of the debate organized by the Lakes Region Tea Party. PSNH said something about feeling "vulnerable," according to the event organizer.

Later, PSNH's Martin Murray excused the sudden no-show on the grounds that the company had already attended over 100 public meetings.** He neglected to mention that the so-called informational meetings that PSNH held for NH citizens took place without mentioning the details of the transmission project such as the need for eminent domain and tower heights. This was all part of the "don't get specific with the public" strategy. As Patrick McDermott phrased it, PSNH was to "keep to a high-level, consistent message."*** That is, to keep the public in the dark as much as possible for as long as possible.

What would make PSNH feel vulnerable about actually having to talk with New Hampshire citizens? Was it that their vaunted $23.9 million tax benefit to towns is a first-year only figure, before depreciation sets in? Was it, as van Luling has admitted, that the jobs are only temporary? Was it that the broad band promise can’t happen? Was it that their offer to hide the sale of ROW property to them in Clarksville in a blind trust LLC shocked people? Was it that the subject of burying the lines along public ROWs would surely come up?

Or did the prospect of having to discuss eminent domain “across the table” from three New Hampshire citizens strike fear into PSNH’s heart? Did they realize that they could not pretend that the proposed route on the lower 140 miles is all sewn up? Stock analysts in New York may be fooled by that ruse, for now, but New Hampshire citizens know better. They know that the necessary miles and miles of new and adjacent (aka “expanded”) ROWs below Groveton would have to be seized by eminent domain.

Only PSNH can answer why it felt vulnerable talking to NH citizens, but there are more than enough possible reasons. And, ironically, it looks like the new candor promised by van Luling’s assumption of the NPT leadership role this month won’t amount to anything more than those folksy vox pop “My New Hampshire” ads in which “Doug,” “Christine and George,” and “Jack” gush about Northern Pass and everybody else wonders how much these people are being paid to gush.

When PSNH/NPT was given the chance on August 24th to talk across the table with real New Hampshire citizens, not ersatz "Doug," "Jack," et al., their tongues were suddenly tied. The ancient proverb, “vox populi vox dei” (“the voice of the people is the voice of god -- the voice of truth"), sent them packing.

*Quoted from Annmarie Timmins, "Vox populi Northern Pass-style," Concord Monitor, July 1, 2011, reprinted here.

**From Paula Tracy, "50 attend Moultonborough forum on Northern Pass," Union Leader, August 25, 2011.

***From Ron Starner, "Power to the People," Site Selection Magazine, March, 2010.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Not-So-New MOU: How the DOE Forgot the Public This Time

On Friday, August 12, the Department of Energy announced a new EIS contractor team to replace Normandeau and released the Memo of Understanding (MOU). In this post, a guest blogger reads the not-so-new MOU.

A Guest Blog                                                                    

Before turning to the latest affront from the DOE, the MOU setting forth the “rules of engagement” for the newly-announced EIS consultants, think back. Remember our mindset when the DOE started its process late last year?  We thought they’d be even-handed and fair.  We thought the public had as much weight with the DOE as Northern Pass and its sponsors. We believed if we led the DOE toward the public interest, they’d see it and embrace it.

We were so wrong.  Time and time again, the DOE’s actions have shown they’re nothing but a shill for Northern Pass. 

The public doesn’t have any material role in the DOE’s process.  Sure, there are public scoping meetings, public comments, a public website. But these just allow the DOE bureaucrats to check the box that says they listened to the public and then march off to do Northern Pass’s bidding.

The latest proof of “DOE-as-NP’s-handmaiden” comes from Friday’s announcement of the new EIS consultants (who replace Normandeau, but that’s subject to an asterisk, see #4 below) and the MOU between the DOE, Northern Pass, and the new consultant team.

Here’s how the DOE forgot the public this time around:
1.      Closed door process to choose EIS consultants.  Once again, just like Normandeau, the contractor selection was made entirely behind closed doors.  Well, closed to the public, but not to Northern Pass.   After the Normandeau fiasco, many interveners and others strongly requested that the DOE run an open, transparent process for contractor selection.  Come up with a group of candidates based on recommendations from NP and the public.  Allow public comment.  Then make a decision, with published reasons for the choice.  Well, the DOE completely blew off these suggestions for a fair and open process.  For all we know, the EIS consultants were pre-selected by Northern Pass and rubber stamped by the DOE.  With a closed process, there’s no way to tell.
2.      Northern Pass defines the EIS work and holds the purse strings over the EIS consultants.  You can’t make this stuff up.  The MOU assigns Northern Pass the responsibility of negotiating the “scope of work” for the EIS consultants.  In other words, Northern Pass, the applicant, defines key elements of the EIS review.  Does that sound fair to you?  Do you see anywhere that the public gets to provide input on the consultants’ assignment.  No, of course not, the public isn’t even on the radar screen.  It gets worse.  Northern Pass also negotiates the budget for the EIS work and is “solely responsible” for managing the consultants’ compliance with the budget.  With their work defined by Northern Pass and Northern Pass setting the budget and cracking the whip (“don’t look at that wetland or any WMNF alternatives, no money left in the budget!”), does anyone seriously believe the consultants will effectively be independent?  Here in the real world in New Hampshire, we all know that if you set the task and control the paycheck, you control the job.
3.      Northern Pass knows the EIS schedule, but the public isn’t told.  There’s a separate “Consulting Services Agreement” between Northern Pass and the consultants. The DOE is not a party to it. And guess where the schedule for the EIS work is set out – stuff like due dates, milestones, when the preliminary EIS gets completed, and when the final EIS is supposed to be all wrapped up?  Yup, the schedule is only in the separate NP/consultant agreement.  The schedule of work is carefully omitted from the MOU, so the public is kept in the dark.  The DOE knows the schedule, and hopefully one of the opposition’s sharp lawyers will be able to pry it out and get the schedule into the public domain.  But until then, we’ll know nothing on schedule.
4.      Normandeau lives (as the core data provider)Here’s a tricky point that could be big indeed.  Down in the MOU’s fine print is a provision that says Northern Pass is responsible for “providing project specific data and information” to the EIS consultants and “reviewing the EIS” for “accurate presentation and use of such data and information”.   In other words, it looks like the EIS consultants may not be gathering their own “data and information” about the environmental impacts, but will merely be incorporating the data and information supplied by none other than the applicant, Northern Pass.  And who’s done extensive work for Northern Pass to get the data together?  Normandeau.  It looks like there’s a real possibility that this EIS, with a “new team”, will be less new than we hoped and will instead be based on recycled Normandeau work. Why on earth is Northern Pass, the applicant for a federal permit, given the right to be the data source for the federal EIS?  Why wouldn’t the DOE insist on independent data collection?  Boggles the mind.
5.      Northern Pass gets special closed door sessions to change EISLet’s imagine there’s a proposal from someone at the DOE to do something sensible like have the EIS analyze the alternative of burying the lines.  Northern Pass disagrees.  What’s the process?  Northern Pass gets to have a special, closed door meeting with the DOE to try to smooth things out.  You know, like “sure, analyze burying the lines, but only on the existing PSNH rights of way (not highways or rail beds) because that’s our proposal.”  Does the public get a chance to weigh in?  No.  The public is shut out once again.

That’s the DOE’s process.  It’s hard to imagine any process with less of a substantive role, and with less respect, for the public. Not only is the process applicant-driven, but the public isn't even in the car.

Please forward this discussion to your US Senators and Representatives and ask them exactly what they plan to do to give the public a fair shake.  Ask them to tell you in writing.  Follow up.  And if they do nothing that is effective to give the public the role we deserve, unelect them.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Listening to Northeast Utilities' Q2 Earnings Call Today: A Guest Blog

A guest blog on significant aspects and implications of Northeast Utilities' Q2 earnings call for investors today. Northern Pass was a prominent subject. Following their presentations, Charles Shivery, NU's CEO, and Leon Olivier, NU's COO, took nine questions from analysts.The full transcript is here; the audio version is here.        

  • For the first time, the securities analysts on the call honed in on the right of way, eminent domain legislation, and timing issues for Northern Pass. There were tough, direct questions. This hasn’t happened before, so it’s clear the analyst community is becoming aware of the substantial issues facing Northern Pass.
·         Shivery sets a deadline of 6 months, by the end of the second half of 2011, to announce the new “northern” route for NP.  NP is clearly working on the route, and Shivery is putting his credibility on the line by saying that the new route will be announced within 6 months.
·         Shivery sells the message that the only problem from stakeholders with the NP route occurs on the top 40 miles.  He gives no credence, airtime, or indeed any mention whatsoever to any other issues raised regarding NP, and he gives no notice to the investment community about the problems with the existing PSNH ROW.
·         Shivery mentions the new FERC transmission planning and cost allocation order (Order No. 1000) and tries to suggest it is good for Northern Pass. In fact, it is irrelevant to NP as currently designed.
·         For those who don’t understand the difference between “reliability” and “optional” projects, note that the vast majority of the discussion of transmission on the call is about traditional reliability projects – determined by ISO-NE to be “needed” and qualified or to be qualified for inclusion in the customer rate base.
·         “Earlier, Chuck discussed some of the recent developments concerning the Northern Pass project. Recall that the project involves 180 miles of new transmission line in the state, including an AC section in Southern New Hampshire. Of those 180 miles, we currently have right of way for 140 miles. Our focus right now is on the 40 northernmost miles where we need new right-of-way,” Olivier says. There’s a misleading statement.  NU is trying to take analysts off any scent that there are problems on the existing PSNH ROW.  As we know, contrary to the statement, they DO NOT “have” the necessary ROW for the 140 miles!!! All those so-called expansions would also have to be new ROWs, for one.
·         “We continue with our outreach in New Hampshire stakeholders and communities as we identify and secure a route for those 40 miles and hope to announce such a route later this year. We are making solid progress in this effort.”  There’s a clear statement to the investment community that NP is making tangible progress on the new northern route.  If this is true, we need to worry…
·         The new timeline:  “This process of identifying routes and providing stakeholders with time to review and comment has added about an additional 9 months to the siting process. That is why we now estimate that the construction will begin in early 2014.”
·         “As a reminder, the project has a number of benefits for New Hampshire and the region. It is expected to add more than $25 million a year in local property tax revenue and add 1,200 construction jobs. We estimate it will reduce the region's wholesale electric cost between $200 million and $300 million annually, including at least $30 million that would accrue to New Hampshire, and reduce CO2 emissions by as much as 5 million tons a year.” NU's Olivier has now wrapped around NP’s claims in an official statement to the market. This statement is now fair game for any challenges that it is inaccurate and/or misleading under federal securities law concepts.
  • · And if anyone thought there would really be an “independent” environmental assessment: “We have a contractor that will put together an environmental assessment that looks like 2 seasons. It looks at both kind of spring and fall. And we've already started that on the first 140 miles on the existing right-of-way. We'll be turning over that data and information fairly soon to the DOE third-party contractor that will evaluate it.” In other words, NP’s own consultant is doing the environmental work and the DOE’s consultant will just check it over. Independent?

  • "As you may know, the U.S. Department of Energy environmental assessment process begins once a specific route is submitted. We applied last fall with the DOE, and they have left open the public comment period on the project so that the petition and the review process can comment on the route that we identified. The DOE will announce a consultant who will be working on the environmental data already collected for the lower 140 miles of the route. We expect this process to continue throughout this year and into 2012 as we advance through the siting process. Additionally, we will begin preparing our application for the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee once the northern 40 miles of the route are identified." Does the underlined statement mean that the data already collected by Normandeau in the existing ROW will be the data used by the DOE's EIS consultant? Independent?
  • · NU’s view of HB 648: discriminatory? “And the Eminent Domain Bill, what that would have done is essentially it would have precluded the right of eminent domain for any other project other than essentially reliability based projects. So if that was the case, then it would be very difficult to develop any other renewable resources inside of New Hampshire, so we thought that was discriminatory.” Just ridiculous. A developer of a renewables generating plant does not get eminent domain. Why should the transmission line that hooks up the plant get Eminent Domain?
  • · This response to a question about connections to wind developments in NH suggests that NP, or some additional lines on the same corridor, will try to hook up Brookfield or other wind resources. “The wind developers in the north are all essentially commercial competitive enterprises, and what we do there is a system, as necessary, to make interconnections through their wind development, most notably in New Hampshire.”

Now You See It, Now You Don't: NPT's 2016 In-Service Date

Another entry has gone "missing in action" on the Northern Pass website. The journal post, "Digging into underground," disappeared between Friday afternoon, July 22, and Monday morning, July 25. The announcement of a delayed project completion date from 2015 to 2016 vanished even faster, sometime between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., August 2. (See Before and After, following.) Along with the latter disappeared the residual dead link to the post removed on July 25, "Digging into underground."

                                                   (9 a.m. August 2, 2011)

(9 p.m., August 2, 2011)