The next president of the United States will decide only one issue that uniquely affects New Hampshire residents. Yet as candidates of both parties blanketed the state in the final weeks before today’s primary, that issue received scant attention.
The next president will decide whether to authorize the cross-border connection to Canada’s Hydro-Québec needed for the Northern Pass electrical transmission line. The mega-utility Eversource is making a $1.4 billion bet on the line, which will ravage New Hampshire’s landscape and communities only to serve electricity customers in Massachusetts and south.
The 190-mile line would snake poles and wires through 31 communities from the Canadian border to Concord and then East to Deerfield, destroying viewsheds along scenic byways and blighting more than 400 acres of lands permanently committed to conservation. The affected acreage also includes some of New Hampshire’s most pristine forestland in the northern reaches of Coos County. Yet in response to public demands for full burial of the line and votes from more than 30 New Hampshire cities and towns to oppose the project, Eversource has been unwilling to step up.
To what end? The rationale for the line is to bring inexpensive hydroelectric power, dubbed “renewable,” to Eversource service territories other than New Hampshire. For states like Massachusetts, where Gov. Charlie Baker is closely identified with and strongly supported by Eversource’s CEO, it’s a sweet deal, rewarding a close corporate ally while letting Baker off the hook for developing homegrown renewable power projects in Massachusetts.
But both the “inexpensive” and “renewable” descriptions are dubious. Eversource has never disclosed what price it will pay for the Hydro-Québec power, or even whether it has locked the price in by contract as some of its competitors have. And the “renewable” label is not really apt for the power Northern Pass would deliver. As designed, the Hydro-Québec system has a larger carbon footprint than the wind and other renewable projects available to the states receiving the power. Plus, construction of the line mostly above ground will sacrifice significant forest acreage that now serves as a carbon-absorbing sink.
For all of Eversource’s hard-to-substantiate boasts about short-term job creation from Northern Pass construction, the mostly above ground approach forgoes much of the line’s potential for economic stimulus, while sacrificing iconic vistas that are essential to the long-term health of New Hampshire’s recreation and tourism sector.
In addition to being of direct concern to the people of New Hampshire, Northern Pass presents a microcosm of many issues at the heart of our energy platform that will face whoever wins the presidency: whether full burial of electric transmission lines should be the norm, as it always has been with gas transmission; whether we invest in huge gas and electric transmission projects on the backs of families and businesses when those projects may be obsolete before completion; and whether we embrace carbon-intensive technologies or the clean and job-creating energy options available today.
So it is remarkable that an issue of such importance to New Hampshire voters, whichever party they favor, never came to the forefront in the endless town halls and other forums leading up to today’s state primary.
Political candidates are deft, of course, at reducing tough choices like these to bumper-sticker slogans or glib generalizations (“I support an all-of-the-above energy policy”; “I believe in a clean energy future”). But a candidate’s mettle is best shown when asked to take a stand on an issue as tough and divisive as Northern Pass.