Northern Pass: The 5 million ton elephant in Massachusetts’s climate plan

Christophe Courchesne

photo credit: flickr/OpenThreads

The Northern Pass transmission project is being pitched by its developers as a clean energy proposal for New Hampshire. As I’ve pointed out before, Northern Pass is a regional proposal with dubious benefits in the Granite State. Unfortunately, the developers’ hollow promises have found an audience further south, in Massachusetts.

From the public discussion as well as the developers’ PR blitz, you might think that the Northern Pass – a high voltage transmission line that would extend 180 miles from the New Hampshire-Canada border, through the White Mountains, to Deerfield, New Hampshire – is just a New Hampshire issue. It’s not: the ramifications of this project extend well beyond New Hampshire.  The implications are both regional and enduring, as they will shape the energy future of New England for decades to come.

Given this context, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) should be leading a pro-active, regional assessment of the options for additional imports of hydroelectric power from Canada. So far, DOE has squandered its opportunity to lead such an assessment while the Northern Pass permitting process remains on indefinite hold. Since April of this year, CLF has been urging the DOE to use this delay to deliver a fair, big picture review of the Northern Pass. It’s what New England deserves, and what DOE owes the public.

Although you wouldn’t know it from the media or the developers’ “MyNewHampshire” advertising campaign, Northern Pass also is a Massachusetts issue. Why? As if hidden in plain view, it’s at the center of Massachusetts’s plan to combat climate change. You might say it’s the elephant in the room.

Massachusetts’s 2010 “Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2020” (the Plan) seeks to reduce Massachusetts’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) 25% below 1990 levels by 2020. CLF has applauded the Plan as an aggressive, nation-leading effort. However, we long have been dubious of the Plan’s reliance on potential imports of Canadian hydropower.

Regrettably, the final Plan (at pp. 45-46) uncritically bought the Northern Pass developers’ line that Northern Pass will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5.1 million metric tons annually by 2020. Where does the Plan get that figure? The figure was never publicly vetted or discussed during the public planning process in which CLF was an active participant. The only citations are to the developers’ website and to a 2010 report by an energy consulting firm hired by the developers. That’s it. Massachusetts is taking the developers’ sales pitch at face value.

The Plan goes on to claim that Massachusetts can take credit for the entire reduction, even though the current Northern Pass proposal, by design, does not guarantee that Massachusetts customers will purchase any hydropower from Hydro-Québec through Northern Pass or otherwise. So, just how much of Massachusetts’s ambitious GHG reduction goal does Northern Pass’s supposed 5 million tons represent? More than 70% of the Plan’s reduction goal for the electric sector and more than 20% of the Plan’s goal overall. Of the Plan’s “portfolio” of initiatives, the Plan credits Northern Pass with achieving the single highest amount of emissions reductions.

Northern Pass is a highly questionable element of the Plan for a number of reasons. First, it’s not clear how much power Massachusetts will actually get from Northern Pass. Second, the project faces myriad permitting hurdles and isn’t anywhere close to a done deal. Third, Massachusetts has no direct role in the project’s development.

But it’s worse than that. The report by the developers’ consultant – and its 5.1 million ton estimate of Northern Pass’s reductions of GHG emissions – is simply wrong. The report’s error is a contagion that directly undermines the Plan’s ambitious GHG reduction goal.

To make a long story short, the report assumes that Canadian hydropower results in no GHG emissions. That assumption is contradicted by Hydro-Québec’s own field research on the GHG emissions from the recently constructed Eastmain reservoir – the very reservoir where, according to testimony by a developer executive, Northern Pass’s power will be generated.  Together with other scientific literature, the research demonstrates that reservoirs have long-term, non-zero net GHG emissions (in part because they permanently eliminate important carbon “sinks” that absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, such as boreal forests). That makes the  5 million tons, at a minimum, blatantly inflated.

But even more importantly for Northern Pass and Massachusetts’s GHG reduction goal, the same research suggests that Northern Pass may not reduce GHG emissions at all before 2020, if ever. According to Hydro-Québec, a newly inundated reservoir has GHG emissions comparable to a modern natural gas power plant in the decade following flooding.  This chart from a Hydro-Québec paper, which itself likely underestimates reservoir emissions over time, tells the tale:

Natural gas plant and reservoir (Eastmain 1) emissions are similar in first decade of reservoir operation

And according to the developers’ projections, Northern Pass would overwhelmingly displace natural gas-fired generation (itself a missed opportunity to displace the output of coal-fired power plants).  If Northern Pass relies on new hydroelectric facilities in Canada for its power (as the developers and their consultant are assuming), Northern Pass as proposed will have no net effect on emissions in its early years and may never result in meaningful reductions, let alone 5 million tons per year.

Without the claimed reductions from Northern Pass, the Plan cannot come close to achieving the bold 25% reduction in GHG emissions that made headlines, even if every element of the Plan is implemented. In other words, there is a 5 million ton hole in the Plan that Massachusetts needs to fill with real and verifiable reductions.

CLF has been making this case during Massachusetts regulators’ review of the proposed merger of Northeast Utilities and NSTAR – the same companies behind Northern Pass – that week approval to form the largest electric utility in New England. Piggybacking on the Plan, Northern Pass’s developers are citing the emissions reductions from the project as the premier “climate” benefit that Massachusetts will supposedly get from the merger. That benefit appears right now to be a zero; particularly in light of the merger’s negative impacts, Massachusetts deserves a lot more to satisfy the “net benefit” standard that the merger must achieve to gain approval.

In the months ahead, we also will be pushing back against Hydro-Québec and its corporate allies in Massachusetts, who are now urging radical changes to Massachusetts’s clean energy laws that would subsidize large-scale hydropower imports, at the expense of local renewable energy projects that provide jobs and economic benefits in Massachusetts and throughout New England. The Plan itself explains the reason this is a bad idea – large hydro is a mature technology that is economic and cost-competitive without any additional public support; large hydro also has caused dramatic environmental damage and major disruptions to native communities in Canada. If imports secure little or no reduction in GHG emissions, the case for new subsidies disappears altogether.

Some may be hoping that no one is looking seriously at what Northern Pass would mean for the climate and that the Northern Pass debate will remain within New Hampshire’s borders. CLF, however, is committed to securing real scrutiny of Northern Pass’s misleading claims, ridding Massachusetts’s climate plan of its faulty reliance on Northern Pass, and advancing clean energy solutions that will, in fact, meaningfully reduce our region’s carbon footprint while enabling Massachusetts to achieve its full 25% reduction in GHG emissions by 2020.

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