The “New Route” for Northern Pass Won’t Cure Its Failings


This summer, New Hampshire is bracing for news of the Northern Pass project’s future and its “new route.”

It’s now been nearly a year since the federal permitting process for the Northern Pass project was put on indefinite hold. North of Groveton, New Hampshire, the developer – Northern Pass Transmission LLC (NPT) – is still working behind tightly closed doors to string together a new section of the project route, where there are no existing transmission corridors, by paying landowners substantial sums for property – in many cases, well above market value.

Earlier this month, the chief operating officer of NPT’s parent company, Northeast Utilities, told investors:

Where we are right now is in procuring the last 40 miles of the right-of-way, and I can tell you we are making very, very strong progress in lining up the right of way. I think we’re on track for the middle of the year, approximately August timeframe to have the right-of-way secured and then to be prepared to file with the [U.S. Department of Energy] the route….

NPT’s apparent plan (assuming it really can overcome the considerable obstacles to a new route):

Not so fast. Before the news arrives (if it does), it’s worth remembering that whatever new lines the developer manages to draw on the map do nothing to change the project’s DNA or to demonstrate that the project will benefit New Hampshire. A brief review is in order:

Where are the benefits for New Hampshire?

Through  costly marketing efforts, NPT has been trying to sell New Hampshire on the tremendous economic and environmental benefits of Northern Pass. But the supposed benefits just don’t hold up to scrutiny:

  • Reduced emissions from “clean power”?

In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, CLF’s report on the most recent science demonstrated that new hydropower projects to supply power for Northern Pass are much worse for the climate than NPT’s false advertising claims have led the region to believe and are not meaningfully better than natural gas power plants (the power NPT predicts that Northern Pass would replace) in the early years after reservoirs are developed. As a result, contrary to mistaken but widely disseminated assumptions, importing hydropower from Canada is not a short-term solution that will reduce New England’s or New Hampshire’s carbon emissions. Indeed, the current proposal would have the perverse effect of protecting – rather than hastening the transition away from – PSNH’s low-performing, high-emitting power plants, which are New Hampshire’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. (Despite marketing the project based on its “clean” source of the power, NPT also refuses to acknowledge the relevance or importance of the troubling damage to ecosystems and communities that large-scale hydropower causes in Canada.)

  • Lower electric rates?

Those who would live with the new transmission lines, customers of NPT affiliate PSNH, are the least likely to benefit. Despite nearly two years of promises that PSNH would announce a plan to purchase Hydro-Québec hydropower for New Hampshire residents, there is still no agreement to do so. Any modest effects on the region’s wholesale electricity rates (which NPT’s consultant predicted based on outdated economic assumptions about energy costs) don’t translate into lower rates for PSNH customers (who instead are stuck paying the bill for PSNH’s inefficient and dirty power plants). In fact, if Northern Pass succeeds in lowering wholesale rates, it will likely worsen PSNH’s death spiral of increasing rates and fewer customers, leaving those residents and small businesses still getting power from PSNH with higher bills.

  • Growing New Hampshire’s clean energy economy and jobs?

There is a substantial risk that Northern Pass would swamp the market for renewable energy projects in New England, especially if state laws are amended to qualify Hydro-Québec power as “renewable.” Furthermore, the project’s high voltage direct current technology means that its massive investment in transmission capacity will wholly bypass the potentially fertile ground for renewable energy development in northern New England. Whatever the short-term construction jobs required (and NPT’s estimates are disputed), the current Northern Pass proposal may diminish the prospects for New Hampshire’s clean energy economy, including needed permanent jobs in the renewable and energy efficiency sectors.

No regional plan addressing new imports

Québec continues to implement its ambitious plan to develop more wild Boreal rivers into a new generation of massive hydropower projects, which will increase its export capabilities. This January, Hydro-Québec commissioned the final turbine at its latest hydropower facility (Eastmain 1-A) and will commission other turbines (at Sarcelle) as part of the same overall project later this year. Construction at the $8 billion Romaine River hydropower project (the subject of the film Seeking the Current) has begun and is ongoing, with the first unit expected to come online in 2014. Northeast Utilities has affirmed that Northern Pass will tap the power from these new projects. Meanwhile, Northern Pass competitors are moving forward with new transmission projects in eastern New England and in New York, among others:

Northern Pass and competitor transmission projects (source: ISO-NE)

More than a year ago, CLF and others urged the Department of Energy to weigh the region’s energy needs and develop a strategic regional plan that would determine a well-informed role for new Canadian hydropower imports in the northeastern United States’ energy future – before moving forward with the permitting process for Northern Pass. NPT’s only response was that responsible planning – encompassing the other pending transmission projects and a full consideration of the reasonable alternatives – would unacceptably delay its project – a truly ironic claim given NPT’s own, unforced, ongoing delay. More incredibly, the Department of Energy has so far sided with NPT, without explaining why.

So as Québec builds more dams and NPT buys up land, our region has no plan of its own. With no framework to understand the nature and extent of the appropriate role for Canadian hydropower, it is difficult if not impossible to make a sound, well-informed decision on whether Northern Pass – or projects like it – should proceed.

Community and grassroots reaction throughout New Hampshire

Since Northern Pass was announced in 2010, the project has inspired a broad-based and spirited movement of people throughout New Hampshire to oppose the current proposal. Last spring, there were massive turnouts at the Department of Energy’s public hearings on the project, with literally thousands attending and providing written and verbal comments both questioning the merits of the current proposal and urging a thorough environmental review. And earlier this year, a coalition of citizens and organizations of many political stripes succeeded in persuading New Hampshire’s legislature to enact a bill preventing projects like Northern Pass from using eminent domain. In another effort, more than 1,500 donors contributed total of $850,000 to enable the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests to preserve the treasured New Hampshire landscape surrounding the historic Balsams resort, including a parcel that NPT had sought to purchase as part of Northern Pass’s transmission corridor. To date, town meeting voters in 32 local communities have passed resolutions and ordinances against the current proposal. Critically, most of these communities are located along the NPT’s “preferred route” that follows PSNH ‘s existing transmission corridor, south of any “new route” that NPT may announce.

NPT’s refusal to consider routing and technological alternatives

At every turn, NPT has rejected calls for in-depth consideration of potential alternatives to its current proposal, including use of an existing high-voltage transmission corridor that extends from Canada, through Vermont and western New Hampshire, to Massachusetts; burying transmission lines in transportation corridors, as is proposed in the New York and eastern New England projects mentioned above; or adding capacity to that same New York project, consistent with that project’s original proposal (it has since been scaled back). Indeed, Northern Pass’s response to the public’s opposition to the project was to “withdraw support” for alternative routes and double down on its “preferred route.” While this stance may be in the economic interest of NPT and PSNH, it’s grossly at odds with a fair, well-informed permitting process that would vindicate the public’s interest in a solution with minimal environmental and community impacts.

If and when NPT comes back from its year of buying up North Country land and relaunches its effort to secure approval of the Northern Pass project, with the only change to the proposal consisting of a new line on the map north of Groveton, there should be no mistake: the fundamental flaws in the current proposal remain. Likewise, whatever NPT’s “preferred route,” CLF remains as committed as ever to securing a comprehensive and rigorous permitting process that identifies superior alternatives and a final outcome that moves us toward – and not away from – a clean energy future for New Hampshire and the region.

For more information about Northern Pass, sign-up for our monthly newsletter Northern Pass Wire, visit CLF’s Northern Pass Information Center (https://www.clf.org/northern-pass), and take a look at our prior Northern Pass posts on CLF Scoop.

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