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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.

Maine In, N.H. Out for Energy Contract with Massachusetts

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Sam Evans-Brown /NHPR
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Massachusetts energy officials have announced they're going with Plan B to bring Canadian hydroelectric power to the Bay State.

They've selected a back-up project that runs transmission lines through Maine, after New Hampshire state regulators refused to allow Plan A – the controversial Northern Pass project.

But the Maine project, known as New England Clean Energy Connect, also faces an uncertain future.

In Massachusetts, the announcement got kudos and criticism from those closely watching the state's selection of a massive clean energy project:

“We're pleased that the process is moving ahead and Northern Pass has been terminated,” says Brad Campbell, head of the Conservation Law Foundation.

CLF vigorously opposed Northern Pass, for many of the same environmental reasons that caused New Hampshire siting officials to reject the Eversource project in February.

That rejection threw a wrench in Massachusetts’ utilities’ negotiations of a 20-year contract to buy Northern Pass’ electricity.

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Map of the New England Clean Energy Connects line.

On Wednesday, Massachusetts officials pulled the plug on the proposal, and went with Plan B – to bring hydroelectric power from Quebec through Maine.

Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities will begin hearings into the New England Clean Energy Connect project at the end of April.

Its developer, Central Maine Power or CMP, is a subsidiary of international energy giant Avangrid and is the largest transmission provider in Maine.

Campbell says CMP’s project also poses environmental concerns – but they're manageable.

“We believe they can ultimately be addressed in the permitting process, especially given that roughly two-thirds of the line is in existing right of way,” he says.

The $950 million Maine project would run 145 miles of new transmission lines from Canada to Lewiston, Maine, where it would hook into the regional grid.

THE MAINE EVENT

Dan Dolan is president of the New England Power Generators Association, which opposes any state mandate requiring utilities to buy clean energy.

“In our estimation, it's going to be one of the most expensive power contracts Massachusetts consumers will ever have to pay for,” Dolan says.

He estimates wholesale electric rates for the Hydro-Quebec power could be double or even triple current prices.

Central Maine power spokesman John Carroll disputes those concerns.

He says all of New England recently helped pay for major upgrades that were needed for grid reliability – upgrades the Clean Energy Connect project would benefit from.

“We're able to plug into that and further leverage what New England has already invested in,” Carroll says. “It just makes the project more economical for everyone."

He says adding competition to the regional energy marketplace will drive prices down by billions of dollars.

But some here worry the project's design will make it harder for local solar or wind projects to tap into the grid. And the Natural Resources Council of Maine is firmly opposing the plan.  

“Lots of negative impacts on the ground, and no clear benefits to the climate,” says the NRCM’s Dylan Voorhees.

He says so far, no one has offered hard evidence that Hydro-Quebec would actually provide new renewable energy to Massachusetts, rather than just shifting around existing capacity.

But Hydro-Quebec spokeswoman Lynn St-Laurent says the Massachusetts contract would drive down greenhouse gas emissions.

"We are absolutely convinced that this will bring [greenhouse gas] reductions,” she says. “We have additional energy available for sale to our export markets today. We have the capacity."

CMP says it expects to win state and federal permits in time for a 2019 groundbreaking.

NORTHERN PASS FIGHTS ON

The Maine utility’s victory in Massachusetts is a big loss for Eversource in New Hampshire.

The utility’s embattled Northern Pass proposal, to bring Canadian hydropower through the White Mountains, has a price tag of $1.6 billion. And a long-term deal with the Bay State would have helped pay for it.

But Eversource spokesman Martin Murray says this isn't the end.

“Massachusetts is a large player in this game, but it’s one of six New England states,” he says. “What we’re seeing is a growing demand and recognition that this sort of energy is desired.”

For now, he says they’ll focus on appealing for their final building permit, which the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee denied in February.

The appeal may end up at the state Supreme Court months from now. And longtime opponents aren't backing down. Here's Jack Savage of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.

“I think everybody who’s been involved in this will stay extremely vigilant, making sure that Northern Pass doesn’t find some other way to suggest that they can go forward,” Savage says.

Even if Northern Pass can get built, energy analyst Jim Bride says they’ll need a new financial backer.

“You can’t just build a project this big on [speculation],” Bride says. “It needs to be anchored by a long-term, credible off-taker.”

But Bride says hypothetically, more than one Hydro Quebec-fueled project could exist in New England. Along with Northern Pass, the giant state utility had ties to other projects that lost out in Massachusetts this year.

“The entire process is driven by politics, less economics,” he says. “So if Massachusetts policy-makers decided they wanted more hydro, then there’d be space for another project.”

Eversource and other developers may not have long to wait. Southern New England states are already planning their next big clean energy purchases.

This story was updated Wednesday afternoon with additional reporting from Maine Public Radio's Fred Bever and WBUR's Bruce Gellerman.

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