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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.

As Mass. Debates Northern Pass Deal, Sununu Says Project Was 'Railroaded'

Thomas Gehrke
Flickr Creative Commons

Officials in Massachusetts are still debating the future of a big renewable energy contract for their state.

That’s after their initial pick, Northern Pass, hit a major roadblock in New Hampshire – though the transmission proposal still has support from Gov. Chris Sununu.

The Commonwealth picked Eversource's Northern Pass plan last month for a long-term contract that must start in 2020. That choice was thrown into limbo a week later, when New Hampshire’s Site Evaluation Committee denied the project its final permit.

Eversource plans to appeal that decision, but the process could take months – and Sununu told radio station WTSN on Friday he wasn't sure they'd have time to meet Massachusetts' deadline.

“Was it legal? Eh, maybe. I’m not even sure about that – I’m not a lawyer,” Sununu said of the SEC’s surprise early vote. “But … when you look at what the factors were that they considered in taking that vote, they just couldn’t be more wrong.”

Sununu said Northern Pass had been “shortcut” and “railroaded.”  

“I mean, this was clearly a pre-staged decision, I think,” he told WTSN.

The SEC comprises representatives from various state agencies, as well as the Public Utilities Commission and the public. Some are Sununu appointees; others date to previous administrations.

To grant Northern Pass a building permit, the group had to find it passed four tests. They agreed it passed the first, regarding financial stability. But they didn’t think it could pass the second, which deals with effects on development, land use and local planning efforts along the project’s route.

After that discussion, three days into the 12 allotted for deliberations, the SEC voted unanimously to deny Northern Pass a permit.

“When you look at that process, that just screams, you know, something’s wrong,” Sununu told WTSN. “And as governor, you know, I’m going to do what I can to fix it.”

His office didn’t offer specifics as to what that would entail.

"The people of New Hampshire must have certainty that the regulatory framework by which we site large-scale energy infrastructure projects is transparent. Applicants cannot predict the outcome, but they should be able to have confidence in the process," Sununu told NHPR in a statement Monday. "I will continue to explore ways to restore confidence in our system." 

Meanwhile, Massachusetts’ main electric companies – Eversource, National Grid and Unitil – missed their first deadline to decide if Northern Pass is still viable.

Asked for comment Monday, spokespeople for all three utilities said only that they’re continuing to work through the process with Massachusetts’ Department of Energy Resources.

That department now says they'll know more on Friday.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is also watching closely. Her office has been asked to make sure Eversource played a fair role in the initial decision to contract with Northern Pass.

“It is the job of the evaluation committee, not the utilities alone, to determine next steps and the viability of Northern Pass,” AG spokeswoman Chloe Gotsis told NHPR. “It is unclear why the evaluation team was unable to move forward [last] week when all parties have recognized the importance of swift action. Our office continues to call on the evaluation team to resolve this issue as quickly as possible.”

If that team ultimately decides to move away from Northern Pass, they’d have more than 40 other options to make up the 1,200 megawatts of energy they’re seeking.

Those include other big transmission line proposals in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and Southern New England – some fueled by Canadian hydropower like Northern Pass, others by Canadian wind.

Smaller solar, wind and hydro developments are also on the table – and with Northern Pass on the rocks, they're all vying for Massachusetts’ favor once again.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott wrote to Bay State regulators last week, renewing his support for a plan to run a Canadian hydro-powered transmission line under Lake Champlain. Officials say the project, from developer TDI, is essentially fully permitted.

And in New Hampshire, some state legislators have asked Sununu to lend his support to another proposal close to home – Granite State Power Link, from National Grid.

It would carry Canadian wind power on new transmission lines in Vermont and existing lines in New Hampshire, and is expected to go before the state Site Evaluation Committee by summer.

Sununu's office has so far not commented on the legislators' request, except to say they look forward to reviewing it. 

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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