A Promising Option: What the New England Clean Power Link Means for the Region and Northern Pass

Christophe Courchesne

In September, CLF joined New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan in the pages of the Boston Globe to make the case that Northeast Utilities’ deeply flawed and reviled Northern Pass project is not the only way to bring Canadian hydropower south into New England. Today, the region learned about a promising new project—the New England Clean Power Link—that proves the point.

Proposed by Transmission Developers Inc. (TDI), a transmission developer backed by the Blackstone Group, the $1.2 billion, 1,000 megawatt Clean Power Link would run 100 miles beneath the bed of Lake Champlain and then underground for 50 miles to a substation in Ludlow, Vermont, where it would deliver power from Canada to the New England grid. CLF reacted to the project’s announcement with a press statement, which you can read here.

Proposed New England Clean Power Link route (source: www.necplink.com)

Proposed New England Clean Power Link route (source: www.necplink.com)

The project design amounts to a fact check for proposals like Northern Pass by, among other things, calling the question of whether transmission for Canadian hydropower can cost effectively be buried to protect communities along the route. In this and in other aspects, CLF welcomes the announcement of the Clean Power Link, as a thoughtful and promising option capable of bringing cleaner energy to the region without the gratuitous burdens and misinformation of Northern Pass. We look forward to collaborating with the project developer and impacted communities to work through the details.

The project is a close cousin of the Champlain Hudson Power Express, another TDI project that would deliver 1,000 megawatts of mostly Canadian hydropower to New York City, also with underwater and underground transmission technology. Although proposed in 2010 around the same time as the Northern Pass project, Champlain Hudson already has received state approval, and its federal environmental review is farther along, with a draft Environmental Impact Statement published last week. Champlain Hudson has earned the support of environmental groups and New York state government agencies, in part through the developer’s agreement to fund a $117 million environmental trust that will help enhance aquatic habitats and fisheries resources in Lake Champlain and the Hudson, Harlem, and East River systems. Notably, for both Champlain Hudson and the Clean Power Link, the project developers have engaged CLF and other stakeholders with openness and a commitment to addressing important concerns with accurately conveyed data and analysis. This is in stark contrast to Northeast Utilities’ disingenuous, adversarial, and dishonest approach to promoting Northern Pass.

What does the Clean Power Link mean for the region and for Northern Pass? Here are a few early takeaways:

1. Northern Pass isn’t the only game in town. Along with other active projects under development like the Northeast Energy Link, Champlain Hudson, and the Green Line, the Clean Power Link demonstrates there are innovative, cost-effective opportunities to add new Canadian power imports to New England’s energy mix without resort to Northern Pass’s traditional overhead lines. Stakeholders and government officials in southern New England states who have blindly behaved like cheerleaders for Northern Pass now must come to grips with the fact that there are thoughtful and less impactful proposals to consider.

2. Underground high-voltage direct current transmission is a strong, viable option. The Clean Power Link plan is consistent with previously available cost estimates, including for Champlain Hudson, that show advanced underground transmission technology to be a reasonable, economic alternative to overhead lines. For less than the overall cost of Northern Pass project, the Clean Power Link would deliver almost as much power to the New England grid without any transmission towers. It bears noting that an international investment firm has now backed not one but two transmission projects in the Northeast premised on underground technology, utterly discrediting the claims of Northern Pass officials and allies (see yesterday’s Nashua Telegraph) that burying transmission lines is prohibitively expensive.

3. With the Clean Power Link and other projects on the table, the region deserves a robust competition among the many proposals and approaches. Since 2011, CLF has advocated for a regional study and strategy to identify the optimal ways, if any, to pursue new Canadian power imports. The Clean Power Link is an example of the type of project that such a regional approach was intended to surface—an innovative proposal that is responsive to legitimate community concerns about new transmission corridors and overhead lines and avoids impacts to New England’s scenic resources. If projects like Clean Power Link compete with a project like Northern Pass with few discernible benefits to the state where it is located and intractable siting problems, we can expect New England to get a much better deal for both host communities and the region as a whole.  As CLF has suggested, if the states and ISO-NE allow developers to compete, rather than focus on one project, to bring Canadian hydropower to the market, our environment, economy, and communities will benefit.

4. “Getting imports right” is still essential. Earlier this year, CLF explained our criteria for a sound approach to new imports, and we stand by them. In particular, for Canadian hydropower imports to meet their advocates’ lofty expectations, they must verifiably reduce New England’s climate and other air pollution, after accurately accounting for hydropower’s own emissions. In addition, the energy from new import projects like the Clean Power Link must help replace the region’s remaining obsolete and dirty fossil fuel power plants and also demonstrably complement and support—not undermine—homegrown renewable energy and energy efficiency efforts. The developer of the Clean Power Link hasn’t yet had the opportunity to address these issues, and we look forward to constructive dialogue with the developer and its Canadian partners as the project moves forward.

5. It will be important to scrutinize the environmental implications of the project to ensure that its impacts on Vermont’s natural resources are minimized. As my colleague Chris Kilian points out in CLF’s press statement, we look forward to a robust and collaborative environmental review of the Clean Power Link and, in particular, its impacts on Lake Champlain, a treasured and threatened natural resource that is a special focus of CLF’s clean water advocacy.

We have known for a long time that—despite millions invested in public relations—Northern Pass, in its current form, is as good as dead. With the Clean Power Link, we may be seeing the first real indication that the region is now ready to move beyond the slick marketing and misinformation campaign of Northern Pass and toward real solutions that could responsibly bring additional Canadian hydropower to New England.

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2 Responses to “A Promising Option: What the New England Clean Power Link Means for the Region and Northern Pass”

  1. Harley Lee

    I question the underlying premise that New England should be importing more power from Quebec. Hydro Quebec is a crown corporation and benefits from low cost financing of the province. It means a foreign government is subsidizing its energy exports.
    I intervened in a HQ case in Maine years ago and calculated that a wind farm could reduce it’s price for power by two cents per kWh if it had the same cost of debt that HQ had. The environmental impacts of HQ’s dams are not trivial either. Massive swaths of forests are being submerged and become GHG emitters instead of absorbers.

    Let’s focus our efforts on better transmission within New England. There are plenty of wind and solar resources within our region.

  2. Katharine Hikel, MD

    Oh dear. You trust an investment company to safely put hi-voltage electricity under large bodies of water where fish live & people swim? With no looking into the science of electromagnetic radiation (which as we know has caused cancer clusters under hi-voltage overhead lines) or other critical thinking which we depend upon you for? Surprised at CLF’s swallowing this one hook-line-and-sinker !!

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