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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.

Meet The Cable That Made Burying 52 Miles of Northern Pass Possible

Sam Evans-Brown
Sam Johnson (right) and Nathan Scott of Burns and McDonnell show off the new cable technology that Northern Pass is planning to use, HVDC Light.

Wednesday night marked the first in a series of open houses during which Eversource is presenting its latest proposal for a power line that will connect the massive hydro-electric dams of Quebec all the way down to the town of Deerfield, New Hampshire.

This was the public’s first opportunity to ask questions about the project since Eversource announced a new route, which included 52 more miles of buried line. Eversource hasn’t yet finalized its cost estimate, but in what seemed to be a remarkable feat, they say they expect the new burial not to substantially increase the cost of the project.

How is that possible?

“We had to change the cable technology,” explained Eversource New Hampshire’s President Bill Quinlan, “To pursue that amount of underground construction reliably and cost effectively, we had to change from our previous preferred cable to technology to what’s referred to as DC Light technology.”

Lightening up

Previously, Northern Pass was going to be using something called "mass impregnated cable," which has been around since the 1950's and is the workhorse of long-line high voltage cable. The original design would have used four such cables as well as two “metallic returns.”

By switching to a cable called "cross linked polyethylene" or XLP, the company will only be running two cables. The technology is called "light” because it allows the project to shrink from six cables to two.

But in order to shed those four cables, Eversource had to downsize the project from 1,200 to 1,000 megawatts, because that’s the maximum load the XLP cables can handle.

“So the amount of clean energy that’s going to be delivered to New England and to New Hampshire is going to be reduced by 200 megawatts,” said Quinlan on Wednesday night stressing that point, “so that’s a big deal.”

But shedding the cables saves the project money on a number of fronts, especially when it comes to buried lines.

“You don’t need as much width or depth,” says Nathan Scott, an engineer with Burns and McDonnell which helped design the project. He says not only are there fewer cables to run, but the cables themselves are less expensive.  “Basically all the things that are coming into play for the 1,000 megawatts make it cheaper.”

Eversource took the money that it saved by switching to HVDC Light, and plowed it into burying the line through the White Mountain National Forest.

Critics See an Opening

While this might be the first time you’ve heard of HVDC Light, critics of the project have been pushing Eversource to adopt the technology for years, arguing it would allow them to bury the entire line.

“The current proposal is good in that it adopts this new cable technology,” says Jack Savage, spokesman for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, one of Northern Pass’ most resolute opponents, “but it’s disappointing in that it doesn’t take full advantage of it, and is only burying a third of a 190-mile line.”

Both the Forest Society and the Appalachian Mountain Club maintain that by going to HVDC Light Eversource could bury the entire line and still have a project that would work financially. A report from the federal Department of Energy last month found that a fully buried line would cost roughly twice as much as a completely overhead line.

Eversource’s Quinlan says to bury more of the line would make for an un-economic project. He told the crowd at the Concord open house that building this line overhead costs $3 million dollars a mile, while underground costs between $8 and $13 million.

“You know, this is a project that someone has to pay for,” he explains. “We think we’ve struck the right balance.”

Proposal Sways Some

And while the most resolute opponents remain unappeased, many politicians are waiting to see how the changes are received by the public at-large.

The rhetoric from some – including Governor Maggie Hassan – has softened substantially. In a recent press call from a meeting between the New England Governors and Canadian Premiers, she said she was “very, very encouraged” by Eversource’s most recent proposal.

“The concerns about the above-ground lines are still a concern for me, but they have decided to bury through the most beautiful areas of the state,” says Linda Kenison a member of the state House of Representatives from Concord. She says the prospect of this much low-carbon energy is what's swaying her.

“I see this as an opportunity for clean, reliable, renewable power without burning fossil fuels. So that’s kind of leaning me toward the project. I’m not 100 percent, but I’m leaning,” she explains.

How many former skeptics are swayed by this change in technology and the burial it allows will become clear as Eversource’s open houses continue.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.

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