State regulators are in final talks about whether to approve a new transmission line on the Seacoast.
After two days of deliberations, the Site Evaluation Committee has agreed that the Seacoast Reliability Project meets some of the criteria required by state law.
They believe Eversource, the utility behind the project, has the financial means to complete it and that it won't unreasonably damage aesthetics, air quality or historic resources on its route – as long as the utility meets certain conditions for construction.
The SEC still must decide whether the project is in the public interest; whether it will interfere too much with orderly development in the region; and whether it will harm natural resources or the environment.
"We're concerned the project will have those impacts even with conditions,” says Todd Selig, town manager of Durham.
The 13-mile power line would be buried under Little Bay between Durham and Newington. Selig and residents fear it could harm the Piscataqua River estuary.
But Eversource says the project, which would add a higher-voltage transmission line on taller towers between Madbury and Portsmouth, is a necessary upgrade to the fast-growing region's overburdened infrastructure.
This is the first time the utility has returned to the SEC, which must approve all large energy projects in the state, since the denial of the Northern Pass proposal earlier this year.
In that case, the SEC deliberated for less than three days on only some of the tests the controversial proposal had to pass, before rejecting it.
Now, they’re facing a state Supreme Court challenge.
Eversource argues the SEC didn’t do its statutory duty in deliberating only partially on the project, which would have stretched nearly 200 miles through the White Mountains.
Before then, the committee had only ever denied one other project: Antrim Wind, which subsequently re-applied with a revised plan and was approved.
Selig thinks that history has made the SEC want to proceed with caution this time around.
“I think that the fact that Eversource has appealed certain elements of the committee’s rejection of the Northern Pass application has caused the committee to look very closely at its process and to follow it rigorously,” Selig says.
The SEC has four more days of deliberations scheduled over the next two weeks.
Selig says this lengthy process, which began in 2015, has been costly and challenging for his town and for Newington.
He says their residents are overwhelmingly opposed to the project: “If this was town meeting, this would be voted down, hands down.”
But the two towns have had to spend about half a million dollars, combined, to hire lawyers and experts and commission studies to help make their case to the SEC.
“From the perspective of local communities, we feel we are placed at a significant disadvantage in engaging with a regional utility [Eversource] that has seemingly unlimited resources,” he says.
In the next legislative session, Selig hopes lawmakers will consider making state funding available to help municipalities engage more in SEC proceedings.
“It’s not fair to look to the individual intervenors to find the resources to counter a project of this size and scale and scope,” Selig says.
And those intervenors’ fight isn’t over yet. Whether or not the SEC approves the project in December, an appeal from the losing side is likely.