Canal plant has municipal electric utilities fuming


You  probably watched with dismay as your electric bills  marched steadily upward in the past two years. But if you happen to live in Southeastern Massachusetts, you probably didn’t know that a portion of the money you spent quite literally went up in smoke.

  It’s not spelled out in detail on your monthly statements. But   if you live in nearly any community south of Boston, you’re paying at least 5 percent more each month for just one purpose: Running the oil-fueled power plant on the south side of the Cape Cod Canal. 

   The tariff is imposed on all ratepayers in a region stretching from Plainville to Provincetown as a way for power grid operator ISO New England to ensure that the canal plant runs at times when it wouldn’t normally be operating. The plant needs to be running, although not at full steam,  so it can be called on to prevent massive blackouts on the Cape if, for some reason, both of the major transmission lines to the peninsula fall out of service.

   It’s a redundancy that has the managers of municipal utility systems in the region fuming. They argue that consumers on one side of the canal shouldn’t pay for such an expensive insurance policy to help those on the other side.

   At the very least, the municipal utility managers say ISO New England should look for a less pricey alternative to imposing a tariff that has been costing the region’s ratepayers more than $100 million a year since it began in early 2006. The municipal operators hoped that the ISO would craft a backup scenario that doesn’t require Mirant Corp.’s relatively inefficient Canal Generating Plant in Sandwich to stay on standby.

   With no final solution on the horizon, six municipal utilities have put their faith in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to force the issue. Utilities from Hingham, Hull, Middleboro, Mansfield, Braintree and Taunton joined to file a complaint with the federal agency against the ISO on March 28.

   John Tzimorangas, the general manager at  Hingham’s electric system, says it’s hard to justify to residents in his town why they’re paying an extra 5 to 7 percent on their light bills every month just to keep an outdated power plant running.

   The utility managers aren’t the only ones who are upset. Rep. Matt Patrick, a Democrat from Falmouth, renewed his effort in the past week to persuade the state Department of  Public Utilities to approve one alternative known as ``load shedding.''

   That option, which involves calling on certain big electricity users to reduce their power demands during an emergency, could be more complex than simply requiring the canal plant to keep burning up oil. But it certainly would be cheaper.

   Patrick, an outspoken advocate for renewable energy, has been a longtime critic of the canal plant, which was once dubbed by environmentalists as one of the state’s ``Filthy Five'' fossil fuel-fired plants.

   Patrick views the fact that the canal plant is often only running so it can be brought to full power quickly in an emergency as particularly wasteful because of the pollutants emitted by the plant. He sent a letter on Wednesday, with 18 of his colleagues’ signatures, that called for state utility regulators to adopt the load shedding alternative.

   Fortunately, some relief is on the way. The state Department of Public Utilities on Wednesday approved a request from NStar to build an eight-mile, $20 million transmission line from Carver to Wareham. Paul Hibbard, the DPU’s chairman, says the agency has been working diligently to push NStar’s plans forward since they were filed last summer. Hibbard swears  that it’s just a strange coincidence that the approval came as Patrick was trying to draw attention to the canal plant issue.

   The new transmission line will reduce some of the congestion problems in that part of the grid. But it won’t stretch across the canal, so it still won’t eliminate the need to keep the canal plant as a backup option.

  Hibbard says it’s hard to know how much of a reduction to expect in the plant’s operations – and the corresponding surcharge on Southeastern Massachusetts ratepayers’ bills – once NStar finishes the line next year. However, Hibbard says it will be ``significant.''

   The folks at ISO New England, unfortunately,  couldn’t be specific either. Erin O’Brien, a spokeswoman for the organization, says ISO New England has been working on several solutions to the transmission constraints in the region. She says executives at the power-grid operator recognize the need to keep costs in check even as they press on with their main mission to protect the grid’s reliability.

   But all O’Brien could say when asked about the impact the NStar project would have on the canal plant is that the Carver-Wareham line would help ``reduce the need'' to run the plant’s two turbines.

   In other words, the good citizens of Southeastern Massachusetts could be paying a surcharge on their electric bills for quite some time to keep the plant running just so it’s available for emergencies. Certainly the municipal utility operators don’t view the new power line as a final solution, even if it reduces the size of the tariff.

  So the next time you’re heading for the Cape on the Sagamore Bridge, look to the left as you cross the canal. You might just be able to make out some of your recent utility payments out on the horizon, disappearing in a white plume.

    Jon Chesto is the business editor of The Patriot Ledger. He may be reached at