Rethink the Bow scrubber

A group of businesspeople and at least one state lawmaker have raised serious concerns about Public Service of New Hampshire’s plans to install an emissions-reducing scrubber system at its coal-fired power plant in Bow. At the very least, the concerns warrant investigation, and in some cases, soul-searching by state policymakers.

To be sure, at this point PSNH’s hands are tied. In 2006, the Legislature passed a law requiring the utility to install a scrubber system to remove at least 80 percent of the Bow plant’s mercury emissions. At the time, the price tag was estimated to be $250 million.

Somehow in the ensuing years, the cost has ballooned to $457 million – an increase that isn’t completely comprehensible, but nonetheless has been put forward by the utility as accurate and sound.

That 83 percent cost increase should be a red flag, not only to PSNH, but to anyone in the state – from the governor on down – concerned with the vulnerable state of New Hampshire’s economy. Because in the end it will be ratepayers who will be footing such a large bill.

There are several reasons policymakers should look closely before work begins on installing the Bow scrubber. The price tag may be at the top of the list, but not far behind is what in a previous era were called “known unknowns.”

That is, it’s widely anticipated that, under President Obama, there will be further efforts made to reduce the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels, including coal, whose emissions are at the center of the growing menace of global warming.

The $457 million scrubber planned at the plant does nothing to reduce carbon emissions, which will more than likely be targeted by President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency. That means it’s more than likely that some policy will come into effect over the next few years – perhaps a carbon tax, perhaps carbon emissions allowances – that may make people rethink even operating the Bow plant at all.

The bottom line is that lawmakers should think twice about the scrubber requirement the Legislature imposed on PSNH in 2006. That is why we fully support State Sen. Harold Janeway, D-Webster, who has filed a bill to require the Public Utilities Commission to investigate the scrubber decision and report to the Legislature within three months. Since the 2006 measure doesn’t take effect, until July 2013, that seems like a reasonable amount of time to delay work on the scrubber.

Considering the economic times, lawmakers would rightly be concerned about how much the state would have to pay for such a report. But they need not worry. A group of PSNH’s largest commercial customers, led by Stonyfield Farm chief executive Gary Hirshberg, has raised most of the $100,000 a well-regarded, impartial consulting company says it will cost to conduct the study.

Particularly in these times, $457 million is a lot of money to be taken out of the New Hampshire economy so the state’s largest utility can comply with a 2006 law that may not be appropriate for 2009. That’s why lawmakers and policymakers should get behind Senator Janeway’s bill.