Northern Pass’s phantom “benefits”


PSNH's Merrimack Station (photo credit: flickr/Jim Richmond)

I appeared on NHPR’s The Exchange with Laura Knoy this morning, and the topic was the potential energy and economic impacts of the Northern Pass project. The show provided a good opportunity to explain why the project is inspiring so much opposition, why CLF has been skeptical of the current proposal, and how Canadian hydropower could play a role in the New England electric system if pursued appropriately. There was also a segment on the project’s potential impact on property values. You can catch the replay here if you’re interested.

Joining me on the show was Julia Frayer, an economist hired by the Public Service Company of New Hampshire (PSNH) to tout the energy and economic benefits of the project. Recently, she penned a widely-reprinted op-ed and provided testimony to the New Hampshire legislature, suggesting the project will be a boon to consumers and the reliability of the electric system.

Unfortunately, and as I made an effort to point out on the show, the arguments for the current proposal are pleasant talking points without much to back them up. All the cited benefits are speculative, rather than firm commitments, and are not forthrightly presented alongside the proposal’s potential costs. As any student of economics can attest, an intelligent discussion about the economics of a project requires that we at least try to describe and compare the costs and benefits.  We know that the project may have significant negative impacts, ranging from the environmental impacts of generating the power in Canada to the potential effects of major new transmission lines on New Hampshire’s tourism and recreation industries. PSNH and the project developer, Northern Pass Transmission, LLC, have stubbornly failed to acknowledge these impacts, and there is no evidence they were taken seriously in the planning of the current proposal.

One point worth highlighting – the current plan calls for all of the supposed clean energy benefits and electric rate reductions to be delivered through the wholesale market, where Hydro-Quebec intends to sell the power delivered by the project.  But these benefits would mostly bypass the very residential ratepayers in New Hampshire who pay PSNH for electricity – because PSNH acquires very little power from the wholesale market. Instead, as customers of PSNH’s retail power, PSNH residential customers have been left to shoulder the uneconomic costs of PSNH operating several coal-fired generating units – and to pay the highest electric rates in New Hampshire as a result. Northern Pass does nothing to change this situation.  Many commercial ratepayers in PSNH territory have “migrated” in increasing numbers to other utilities that – unlike PSNH – do buy substantial power from the wholesale market to supply their customers. Residential ratepayers don’t have this choice – which means they’re saddled with PSNH’s higher costs, as PSNH loses more and more of its commercial rate base.  Again, Northern Pass does nothing to change this situation.  On closer inspection, the claimed benefits for New Hampshire consumers look more like phantom benefits than anything real.

The proposal promises to send huge profits to Hydro-Quebec, as it bids power into the wholesale market (easily paying back its investment in the transmission lines), and to provide a revenue stream of transmission payments to Northeast Utilities, PSNH’s parent company. But this structure makes very little sense because it means New Hampshire residents will continue to bear the burden of high cost power and dirty air from PSNH’s coal plants and will also face the environmental and economic impacts of a massive transmission project, while the power would only displace relatively less-polluting natural gas generation and may undermine the development of local renewable energy projects in the state. If it does indeed lower costs on the New England market, the effect will be to increase costs for PSNH’s residential customers as more large customers migrate to the competitive market and fewer customers are left to pay the costs of PSNH’s expensive coal plants.

The current proposal is coming into focus as a bad energy and economic deal for New Hampshire, and regionally the benefits seem less than impressive – especially because the emissions reductions made possible could be so much greater if there was a firm commitment to pair the new imports with the retirement of coal-fired units. As the project continues to wind its way through the federal and state permitting process, CLF will keep pushing for the project to make sense for New Hampshire and for the energy future of the region as a whole.

For more information about Northern Pass, visit CLF’s Northern Pass Information Center (https://www.clf.org/northernpass) and take a look at our prior Northern Pass posts on CLF Scoop.

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