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Business and Economy
What Is Northern Pass? Northern Pass is a proposal to run 192 miles of new power lines from Canada, through northern New Hampshire, south to Concord, and then eastward to Deerfield. The project is a collaboration between Eversource (previously known as Public Service of New Hampshire) and Hydro-Quebec, which is owned by the provincial government of Quebec. The utilities say the $1.6 billion Northern Pass project would transport 1,090 megawatts of electricity from Quebec – which derives more than 90 percent of its power from hydroelectric dams – to the New England power grid.The ControversyNorthern Pass has proved an incredibly controversial issue in New Hampshire, especially in the North CountryThe project has generated considerable controversy from the beginning. Despite its statewide impacts, many of the projects most dedicated opponents come from the sparsely-populated and heavily forested North Country.Eversource says the new lines would bring jobs and tax revenue to this struggling part of the state. But opponents of the project say it would mean only temporary jobs for residents when it's under construction. They also say it will deface New Hampshire's forestland, hurting tourism and lowering property values. Depending on the location, developers say the project's towers will range from 85 to 135 feet tall.Polls have consistently found the public remains sharply divided on this issue.Some critics have pushed for the entire project to be buried. Politicians ranging from Sen. Maggie Hassan to former Sen. Kelly Ayotte to 2012 GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich have floated this move as having the potential to soften opposition. Eversource maintains this would be too expensive, and would effectively make the project impossible to pursue. The Route: Real Estate Chess Plays Out In The North Country Northern Pass and its opponents have been fighting over control of land along potential routesNorthern Pass has considered a number of routes for the project, but has publicly announced three. The first, unveiled in 2011, faced major backlash from North Country residents and environmental groups. Over the next couple of years, the project and its primary opponent the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests played a prolonged chess match over parcels of North Country land. Northern Pass ultimately spent more than $40 million purchasing acres of undeveloped land in the North Country. Meanwhile, the Forest Society undertook an aggressive fundraising campaign and sought a slew of conservation easements to block potential routes.This maneuvering narrowed the options for Northern Pass. One lingering possibility was exercising eminent domain. Northern Pass publicly stated it was not interested in pursuing eminent domain. But in 2012, in response to strong statewide opposition, the Legislature closed the option altogether, outlawing the practice except in cases where a new transmission line was needed to maintain the reliability of the electric system.By the spring of 2013, Northern Pass opponents believed the project was essentially "cornered" into trying to route the power line through a large conservation easement, called the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters. The governor at that time, Democrat Maggie Hassan, said she opposed such a move on the part of Northern Pass.Second Time Around: Northern Pass Announces Alternative RouteIn June of 2013, Northern Pass unveiled its second proposed route. Abandoning its previous strategy (and $40 million in land purchases) altogether, the project proposed building along existing state and local North Country roadways in Clarksville and Stewartstown. In a nod to project opponents, Northern Pass also said it will bury 7.5 miles of line in Stewartstown, Clarksville, and under the Connecticut River. That raised the price tag on the project from $1.2 billion as initially proposed to about $1.4 billion. While opponents said this move was progress, many – including the Forest Society – maintained that Northern Pass should be able to bury all 180 miles of power lines.Final Route: Burial through the White Mountains0000017a-15d9-d736-a57f-17ff8a620000 After years of continued opposition, Northern Pass made its final concession to critics. It downsized the powerline from an initial proposal of 1,200 megawatts to 1,090 to take advantage of a new technology, known as HVDC lite. This move made it more economical to bury portions of the line, and Eversource said it was now willing to bury 52 additional miles of the project. The new route would be alongside state roadways as the project passed through the White Mountain National Forest.While the governor called the change “an important improvement,” she also said “further improvements” to the project should be made. The partial burial did not placate the project’s fiercest opponents, but some speculated that it would help the project clear one significant hurdle: whether it would get approval to use public lands from the top official at the White Mountain National Forest. The move pushed the estimated price tag up again, to $1.6 billion, now for a project that would deliver less power.With its new route in hand, project officials filed to build the project in October of 2015.Before the Site Evaluation CommitteeThe application to state officials was likely the longest and most complicated in the state’s history, and 161 individuals, interest groups, and municipalities asked to be allowed to participate in the process to evaluate the merits of the project.Given the size and complexity of the project, many of the interveners pushed for a longer review than the standard one year that state law dictates. In May of 2016, those groups got their wish, and the decision was pushed back 9 months. The final deadline was set for September of 2017. However, once the proceeding got under way, it was clear that even this delay would not allow time to hear from all of the witnesses called by the various interveners. Early in September of 2017 it was delayed again, with a final decision set for February 2018.DeniedOn February 1st, 2018, the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee voted unanimously to deny the permit for Northern Pass, a decision that triggered an appeals process that was taken up by the New Hampshire Supreme Court in late 2018.In May of 2019, the court heard orgal arguments on the appeal.On July 19, 2019, the court issued its ruling. In a unanimous decision, the SEC's rejection of the project was upheld, likely marking the end of Northern Pass as it was proposed.

Eversource Asks N.H. To Reconsider Northern Pass Denial

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Allegra Boverman for NHPR
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William Quinlan, president of Eversource NH, speaks Wednesday in Manchester about his hopes to resurrect the company's Northern Pass project.

Eversource is asking New Hampshire regulators to reconsider their rejection of the Northern Pass project.

The utility filed a motion Wednesday with the state Site Evaluation Committee, or SEC. It wants the committee’s Feb. 1 denial of the project thrown out and the case re-heard. Eversource argues the SEC didn’t do its required diligence in discussing all the criteria the project had to meet to get a permit. 

The committee, made up of state regulators and public representatives, only got through two of four criteria before deciding the project couldn’t pass muster.

In an effort to change the SEC’s minds the second time around, Eversource is also agreeing to myriad conditions state agencies and the counsel for the public in the case had suggested the SEC impose.

Those include more public outreach and financial assurances during and after the project’s construction, as well as environmental and traffic protections along its 192-mile Northern Pass route.

Eversource’s motion also explains how it plans to earmark millions in funding it had already promised to spend, but hadn’t yet divided up.

(Click here to read all of Eversource’s motion to the SEC.)

‘FUNDING IS THE ANSWER’

If Northern Pass moves forward, the utility says it will allocate about half of its proposed $200 million Forward NH Fund as follows:

  • $25 million to promote tourism and recreation along the project’s route;
  • $25 million to repay close neighbors of the transmission line whose property values suffer in the first five years after it’s built;
  • $20 million for energy efficiency projects and other community development efforts;
  • $25 million for local planning and “community betterment” in the 31 communities along the project’s route.

Another $5 million of the fund was already set aside as a loan to the Balsams resort.
The fund was initially described as extra economic development money to benefit the region the line would traverse. Such offerings are a common mitigation tool for large-scale energy developments.

Eversource says the SEC can divvy up the remaining $100 million of the fund for other conditions it might want to impose.

Altogether, Bill Quinlan, the company's New Hampshire president, says he thinks it’ll address the criterion that sunk Northern Pass at the SEC – its effect on the “orderly development of the region” – as well as tests they didn’t get to, such as whether the project serves the public interest.

"We think when you look at that package, that comprehensive set of conditions, it really should get to the heart of the issues that the SEC found concern with,” Quinlan says. “That’s our hope.”

The utility is also putting numbers to other benefits it had already promised to provide:

  • $50 million for North Country utility upgrades;
  • $7.5 million for job creation in that region;
  • $30 million for the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission to put toward benefits for ratepayers.

All of these pre-planned allocations are separate from the project’s estimated cost of $1.6 billion, apart from the utility upgrade money. 
And Quinlan says they’re open to renegotiating other concessions with the SEC, such as construction methods.

“But in many instances, funding is the answer,” Quinlan says. “If there is a quantifiable impact, for example, on property values or tourism, one way to address that is to provide sufficient funding to make people whole or to promote tourism at a far greater level than the perceived impact.”  

Longtime critics of the project are skeptical that the appeal will change the SEC’s minds.

“The conditions Northern Pass says they agree to today were on the table previously for the SEC to take into consideration,” says spokesman Jack Savage of the Society for the Protection for New Hampshire forests. “They simply want a do-over.”

He says the project’s problems can’t “be remedied by giving away money.” And the nonprofit Protect the Granite State, which opposes Northern Pass, agrees.

“Today's actions by Northern Pass are nothing more than a desperate ploy to resurrect a dead project,” says PGS senior advisor Judy Reardon, in a statement. “It won’t work.”

UNCERTAINTY IN MASSACHUSETTS

Quinlan says Eversource stands by its original proposal, and is simply responding to the SEC's concerns with its motion for reconsideration.

“I thought the initial application was well thought-out and well supported,” he says. “I don’t think we could have anticipated precisely where [the SEC’s] issues were going to be, so we had to await their deliberation. Now that we’ve had the benefit of hearing them deliberate, we know exactly what it’s going to take to overcome them, and that’s the foundation for these commitments.”

The motion does specify one other financial benefit of the project. Eversource says it can raise up to $300 million to cut costs for ratepayers by selling clean energy credits associated with the project – basically paper certificates, which Eversource calls attributes, that serve as investments in renewable power.

Eversource may sell credits from Northern Pass, or from another Hydro Quebec project known as Phase 2. The Canadian company included credits from that asset in its deal with Eversource to fuel Northern Pass. 

Hydropower doesn't currently qualify among the most valuable credits on the market, but Eversource hopes that will change.

“By the time [Northern Pass is] in operation three years from now, we believe the market for those attributes will have evolved, and there’ll be a real market in New England,” says spokesman Martin Murray. 

Massachusetts had planned to buy all the clean energy certificates from Northern Pass to help meet its own renewable energy goals.

But with the project’s permit in doubt, Massachusetts regulators are now also considering buying up a competing Hydro Quebec-fueled transmission project in Maine.

The Commonwealth will negotiate with both projects’ developers through March 27. Quinlan says Northern Pass has to “demonstrate progress” by then, and he acknowledges they might not be able to get the project back on its feet in time.

“If Massachusetts moves on for whatever reason, we’ll continue to develop this project,” he says. “I do believe there’s a need in New Hampshire for more than one solution.”

The SEC now has 10 days to decide whether to rehear Eversource’s case. If they say no, Quinlan says the utility will “in all likelihood” take the case next to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

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