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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.

Massachusetts Picks Northern Pass For Major Energy Contract

NHPR File Photo

Eversource’s Northern Pass transmission line is the sole project picked for long-term energy contract negotiations with Massachusetts.

Officials made the announcement Thursday afternoon, less than a week before New Hampshire begins its final permitting deliberations on the controversial project.

Northern Pass would carry 1,090 megawatts of power from Hydro Quebec dams to the New England grid, over a partly-buried 192-mile power line. It would run under New Hampshire’s White Mountains and mainly follow existing transmission lines, ending in Deerfield.

Officials say the project works out to about 9.45 terrawatt-hours of energy, which is what Massachusetts decided to buy in a 2016 state law. Judith Judson, the Bay State's energy commissioner, told reporters Northern Pass was the clear, single choice.

“It rose to the top in terms of net benefit to consumers, as well as its ability to quickly deliver clean energy to the Commonwealth,” she said.

They’ll now enter contract negotiations on the $1.6 billion project, as Eversource awaits its final permit from the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee, or SEC. If the project falls through, officials say they’ll re-evaluate other bids.

An SEC permit is the last thing Eversource needs to start construction. Even if it comes through as early as possible, in March, Eversource New Hampshire president Bill Quinlan says they’ll have to build quickly – working in five to 10 locations along their route at a time – to meet Massachusetts’ completion deadline of December 2020.

“I am, however, confident we will receive [a New Hampshire permit], and we hope not to have to seek re-hearing or a court appeal,” he says. “I’d like to think we can avoid that.”

Those kinds of appeals on either side could delay the project a year or more – and Northern Pass’s many critics have vowed to fight the project as long as possible. Among them is the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire forests, an intervenor in the project’s permit application at the Site Evaluation Committee.

“New Hampshire’s being asked to carry too much of a burden with little or no benefit, and that’s the disappointing thing from the standpoint of what Massachusetts has done,” says spokesman Jack Savage. “They’ve ignored the adverse impacts New Hampshire would have to bear for what they see as benefits to them.”

Northern Pass has faced similar, strident opposition for years from other environmental advocates and neighbors concerned about impacts to tourism and scenery in the North Country.

"I don't know it will, but if it ever goes forward, New Hampshire is certainly getting the short end of the stick," says Savage.
Some independent power generators and analysts are also critical of the project. They say a guaranteed, long-term contract with such a large energy source detracts from diversity on the New England grid.

Quinlan disputes that. He says there’s so little hydropower on the grid right now, any addition represents diversification and stabilization.

“It is essentially a large baseload supply of hydropower, and it will generally displace several of the other fuel mixes,” he says. “On many days, it’ll be displacing natural gas. On other days, like this [recent] cold snap, it will be displacing coal and oil. … It clearly provides fuel diversity away from fossil fuels toward clean, renewable baseload generation.” 

Judson says Northern Pass will account for 17 percent of Massachusetts’ energy load when it’s online. Massachusetts consumers will also pay for the project for the first 20 years.

Eversource says New Hampshire, for its part, will get construction jobs and tax benefits out of the project. In a statement, Gov. Chris Sununu calls its selection by Massachusetts “a win for everyone.”

Eversource is also competing for the other part of Massachusetts’ renewable energy procurement efforts – a bidding process to supply 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind power. 

And, as one of the largest utilities in Massachusetts, they were also part of the selection process that chose Northern Pass. State officials say an independent evaluator ensured that process was fair and not skewed for any one company. But at least one competitor that lost out Thursday – National Grid’s Granite State Power Link, another transmission line proposal in New Hampshire – wants to know more.

“We continue to join with our fellow projects to encourage the Evaluation Committee to provide full transparency into the evaluation process and decision, to ensure public trust in this historic decision,” said National Grid COO John Flynn in a statement.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey's office announced Friday she planned to review the selection process, to ensure its fairness and transparency. 

The New Hampshire SEC begins deliberations on months of testimony and reams of evidence about Northern Pass next Tuesday in Concord. 

(This story was updated Friday afternoon.)

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.

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