Massachusetts Regulators Turn to New Project to Deliver Clean Energy

Northern Pass is on its way out, but what do we know about the Commonwealth's next choice to deliver clean energy?

Greg Cunningham | @GregCLF

Eversource’s controversial Northern Pass transmission line is inching closer to its apparent demise after the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee voted during public deliberations last month to deny it a permit to build. Now, a new project, New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC), has emerged as its likely successor to win a lucrative contract to deliver 1,200 megawatts of clean energy to Massachusetts.

Governor Baker’s shift away from Northern Pass was the right move. However, it has left many scrambling for answers to questions about the process moving forward, the nature of the NECEC project, and what it could mean for its host state, Maine, and for its investors, the families and businesses of Massachusetts.

Where Things Stand: Northern Pass’s Last-Ditch Attempt to Save Its Failing Project

The Baker administration picked Northern Pass as the winning bid for its clean energy contract before New Hampshire regulators had voted it down. Now, Baker’s team has issued Eversource an ultimatum: either reverse the Site Evaluation Committee’s unanimous rejection by March 27 or Massachusetts is moving on. But achieving a reversal by then is a virtual impossibility, especially given that the Site Evaluation Committee has yet to issue its written decision.

When issued in writing, the Committee’s decision will detail the specific basis and reasoning for denying Northern Pass a permit. Of course, the timing of the decision’s release is uncertain and out of Northern Pass’s control. Despite this inherent limitation, last week Northern Pass jumped the gun by prematurely filing a motion for rehearing in an effort to obtain a different result. The bizarre timing of the request for rehearing – before the SEC’s issuance of a decision – is an act of desperation.

Northern Pass Promises Concessions That Are Too Little and Much Too Late

In its motion for rehearing, Northern Pass offers various concessions in an apparent attempt to win over the Site Evaluation Committee, but it’s too little too late. The project proposal simply can’t be revamped at this late stage. What’s more, Northern Pass had eight years to address concerns about the project’s impacts in New Hampshire but failed to do so.

During that time, it largely snubbed its nose at the concerns of community leaders, towns, and environmental groups, apparently assuming the project would receive favorable treatment despite poor planning, unprecedented impacts on iconic areas like the White Mountain National Forest, and widespread opposition. The new concessions proposed are too little to make a difference, and they are also far too late.

Massachusetts May Be Ready to Move On to Its Plan B

Our expectation is that the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee will decline to consider Eversource’s motion until its written decision has been released. Even if the Committee takes up the motion then, it is still unlikely that anything would be resolved before the Baker administration’s March 27 deadline. That means that the administration’s apparent second choice for its energy contract, NECEC, will by default move to the head of the line.

Massachusetts decision makers undoubtedly like NECEC’s lower price tag – purportedly half a billion dollars less than Northern Pass. They may also feel some confidence that Maine’s LePage administration can live up to its pledge to “push” the project through the state’s permitting process.

What does the NECEC project involve?

We are still learning the full details of this recently proposed transmission line, but here’s what we do know: NECEC is a 145-mile long transmission line proposed to run from Lewiston in mid-central Maine to the Québec border at Beattie Township, largely through the rural Kennebec River valley and the rolling foothills of the White Mountains. Proposed by energy and utility company Avangrid, the project connects with the Canadian power system and is designed to deliver electricity generated by hydropower projects owned by Hydro-Québec.

The project will comprise traditional above-ground towers carrying a power line designed to transmit only one source of electricity. This design means NECEC would be limited to relaying only Canadian hydropower and cannot be modified readily to allow local wind or other Maine-based clean energy to tap into the line.

Some impacts from the project have already emerged. Its path travels along existing transmission corridors for two-thirds of its length, but a full one-third would be located in virgin rights of way – resulting in significant clearing of forested land. Located in a river valley and watershed, the line will also intersect and impact numerous waterbodies, including more than 100 stream crossings, plus more than 1,000 acres of wetland. Its overhead power line is proposed to cross the majestic Kennebec Gorge and it cuts across the Appalachian Trail in three separate locations.

What’s the Bottom Line on NECEC?

Let’s face it, Massachusetts selected NECEC as its fallback to Northern Pass because it is a conventional, bare-bones transmission project that will still deliver the Baker administration’s coveted hydropower. While we are still assessing the project’s full implications, it’s the “bare bones” part that concerns us, especially if its low cost comes at the expense of Maine’s environment.

Avangrid could have built some essential and fundamental environmental protections – such as burying the line under Kennebec Gorge – into the project cost and bid from the start. But instead, the company appears to consider these protections to be “extras,” rather than just smart and responsible business practices. If Mainers are to bear the burden of 145 miles of transmission line cutting through our western mountains and along a designated scenic byway, Avangrid should do whatever it can to mitigate its impacts and to benefit the communities and visitors that it affects.

It is critical that Maine demand these protections in its permitting of the project and that they are accounted for in the overall project cost. Indeed, it is also incumbent upon Massachusetts regulators, as an investor in this project, to help ensure that the line is built in a manner that satisfies Maine’s environmental laws and minimizes its impacts on our resources.

What’s good for Massachusetts should be good for Maine, too. That form of responsible investment would also help avoid opposition to the project and speed its review process.

What’s Next?

There’s no question that taking Northern Pass out of the running for the Massachusetts clean energy contract is a good thing. The project should never have been chosen in the first place. Now, we need to ensure that the next project on the list is one that minimizes its impacts and provides benefits to its host state, as well as the people who will receive its electricity.

To help achieve that result, CLF has intervened in the pending NECEC permitting proceedings before the Maine Public Utilities Commission and Department of Environmental Protection and will also be deeply involved in related review by the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities.

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