Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Donate your vehicle during the month of April or May and you'll be entered into a $500 Visa gift card drawing!
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.

In Unanimous Vote, N.H. Supreme Court Upholds Northern Pass Denial

Chris Jensen, NHPR

The New Hampshire Supreme Court on Friday dealt what may be the final blow to the Northern Pass transmission line.

The justices unanimously affirmed the state Site Evaluation Committee’s 2018 denial of the proposal, ruling that the SEC acted legally in how it rejected the project.

Eversource has spent about $300 million over nearly a decade trying to get the project built. It would have ferried 1,100 megawatts of Canadian hydropower through the White Mountains to the New England grid.

The utility had argued that the SEC didn't fairly consider Northern Pass before rejecting it. The committee said it could not find, based on extensive evidence from Eversource and others, that the project would not disrupt orderly development in its region.

That’s one required criterion for big energy developments in New Hampshire.

Eversource had previously argued the SEC erred by not considering all of those tests before rejecting the project. But the utility’s lawyers conceded that point in their arguments to the state Supreme Court, and so the justices did not address the issue.

But they did reject Eversource’s main argument – saying the SEC was justified in finding the utility had not met its burden of proof on the development issue. 

'This is an unfortunate setback to our efforts to advance affordable clean energy in the state.' --Eversource spokesman William Hinkle

The SEC ruling was relatively narrow and did not appear to establish much broader precedent about the SEC process or energy development in the state.

Eversource spokesman William Hinkle said the utility is disappointed by the ruling and will evaluate their options to move forward.

But for the first time, Eversource is referring to its signature project in past tense.

"Northern Pass was the most advanced project to bring abundant, low-cost clean energy into the region,” Hinkle told NHPR Friday. “This is an unfortunate setback to our efforts to advance affordable clean energy in the state."

Hinkle said Eversource believes some new large-scale transmission or generation – potentially with hydropower – will still be necessary to meet future electricity demands in the region, as older power plants retire.

Opponents of Northern Pass disagree. They celebrated Friday's ruling as a long-awaited victory after years spent fighting the power line’s potential environmental and aesthetic impacts. 

"We were very proud to stand with thousands of land owners, conservation partner organizations, dozens of communities who all stepped up and said, ‘Look, we like New Hampshire the way it is, we don't want it ruined by something that doesn't do us much good,’" said Jack Savage, spokesman for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.

'The Court has made it clear - it is time to move on.' --Gov. Chris Sununu

He said he believes the successful campaign against Northern Pass by residents and nonprofits will be remembered in New Hampshire the same way as Seacoast activists’ fight against a proposed offshore oil refinery in the 1970s.

Savage also said he doesn’t believe energy projects on the scale of Northern Pass are a foregone conclusion for the region’s future. Whatever projects come next, he said he hopes Eversource has learned from its Northern Pass experience.

“What local people care about along the way matters a lot,” Savage said. Utilities "are going to have to figure out a way, and include into the cost of a proposal, building something that is consistent with the vision [of] a given landowner, a given community … with the existing land use.”

The SEC is already on track to review at least one major solar project in the coming months and years, as well as the Granite Bridge natural gas pipeline.

Gov. Chris Sununu, a long-time supporter of Northern Pass who initially said it was “railroaded” by the SEC’s rejection, now appears to be setting his sights toward such future projects.

“The Court has made it clear – it is time to move on,” Sununu said in a statement after Friday’s ruling. “There are still many clean energy projects that lower electric rates to explore and develop for New Hampshire and the rest of New England.”

Meanwhile, Massachusetts is continuing to work toward buying Canadian hydropower from a proposed transmission line in Maine.

That project, from Central Maine Power, is still awaiting final approvals. It was tapped for a long-term contract with the Bay State after Northern Pass, their first choice, stalled.

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.
Related Content

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.