By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The Site Evaluation Committee is about to begin 12 days of public deliberations to determine if the Northern Pass transmission project meets the statutory requirements to be approved.
During 70 days of adjudicative hearings, the committee heard proponents, opponents and agnostics and now will sift through the hundreds of thousands of pages of conflicting information and testimony.
Unlike other large transmission projects, Northern Pass is a for-profit undertaking that has created a maelstrom of opposition from abutters, residents, business owners, environmentalists, preservationists and public officials along its 192-mile route from Pittsburg to Deerfield.
Last week, Massachusetts energy officials — in conjunction with Gov. Charlie Baker’s office — gave the project an economic boost when it was selected in conjunction with Hydro-Quebec to be the only one of 46 proposals to negotiate with state electric utilities to provide 1,200 megawatts of clean, renewable energy for 20 years.
However, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey announced a review of the decision because project developer Eversource — the largest electric utility in the Commonwealth — helped write the request for proposal and sat on the selection committee, as did the second largest utility National Grid.
Speaking to reporters after Thursday’s announcement, Eversource-NH president Bill Quinlan said he did not believe the Massachusetts decision would have an effect on the SEC’s decision saying he believes the company has met all the requirements to be issued a certificate. If the committee decides not to approve the project, he said, Eversource would ask for a rehearing or could turn to the courts.
Opponents also raised the possibility of a rehearing and a court challenge if the SEC approves Northern Pass.
Jack Savage of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests said the Massachusetts decision may actually work against approval.
“A contract with Massachusetts further reduces the already meager public benefit to New Hampshire residents and ratepayers,” Savage said. “The public has long argued against allowing the state to be an extension cord for the benefit of Hydro-Quebec and Eversource.”
One of the key issues during deliberation is expected to be the economic viability of the project, with or without the Massachusetts contract.
In essence, the question is will the price of the hydro electricity be competitive with or lower than existing generation and still produce enough money to pay off the loans, bonds or securitization used to finance Northern Pass.
The 20-year contract addresses some of the questions raised by opponents’ experts, but it does not address potential savings to New Hampshire electric customers as all electricity would flow to Massachusetts.
The company has repeatedly said the project will reduce the region’s energy costs by $600 million annually — $62 million for New Hampshire ratepayers — based on both wholesale rates and through the forward capacity market where much of the savings are projected.
But other experts hired by the Counsel for the Public and the New England Power Generators Association say the savings will be much smaller and may not be realized if a similar amount of generation retires due to the competition.
The Brattle Group, hired by the Counsel for the Public, found the project may not meet the requirements to participate in the forward capacity market, which pays generators to guarantee the amount of electricity they will deliver in three years.
SEC Vice Chair Kathryn Bailey asked the financial experts to work together so the committee would have reliable information to judge the project’s viability, but the two sides did not develop one projection.
The project’s economic viability is one aspect the SEC must consider but there are other issues to decide in determining if the project should be approved.
Lawmakers directed the committee to determine a project’s impact on ‘the welfare of the population, private property, the location and growth of industry, state economic growth, the environment, historic sites, aesthetics, air and water quality, the use of natural resources, and public health and safety.”
The law establishes four criteria that must be met before a permit is issued:
- The applicant has the financial, technical and managerial capability to construct and operate the facility in compliance with the certificate’s terms and conditions.
- The site and facility will not interfere with the region’s orderly development with consideration given to the opinions of local and regional planning commissions and municipal governments.
- The site and facility will not have an unreasonable adverse effect on aesthetics, historic sites, air and water quality, the natural environment, and public health and safety.
- And issuing a a certificate will serve the public interest.
The law states public interest includes:
- A balance among significant impacts and benefits in decisions about the siting, construction, and operation of energy facilities;
- Undue delay in constructing a new energy facility;
- Full consideration of environmental consequences;
- Full and complete public disclosure of plans;
- And the facility’s construction and operation is subject to land-use planning including an integrated resolution of all environmental, economic and technical issues.
In the executive summary of its final legal brief filed earlier this month, Eversource said “Northern Pass is poised to provide in excess of $3 billion in benefits to New Hampshire. Without question, Northern Pass will serve the public interest through these substantial benefits.”
The developers list the benefits as clean hydro-generated electricity while reducing carbon emissions and energy costs, creating jobs, increasing the tax base, diversifying the regional power supply and enhancing the reliability of the electric system.
The brief touts the $200 million Forward New Hampshire Plan, the $7.5 million North Country Job Creation Fund, reserving 5,000 acres in the North Country, upgrading the “Coös Loop” transmission system, and environmental restoration work.
But intervenors argue the adverse impacts of the project on tourism, businesses, land and home values, the state’s pristine environment, and the change to the state’s character far outweigh any benefits from the $1.6 billion project.
Many project opponents want the line buried along Interstate-93 or in existing utility right-of-ways where much larger towers are planned. And others argue competing projects and alternative routes would do far less harm to the state.
The SEC has to decide what is the more credible evidence and then issue a decision based on a preponderance of the evidence, or 51 percent.
The 12 deliberative sessions begin Tuesday at 9 a.m. at 49 Donovan St., Concord.
The SEC has to issue a final decision by the end of February and a written decision by the end of March.
Northern Pass hopes to begin construction this spring at the Franklin converter station and the Deerfield sub-station expansion sites, and along the 52-mile section of buried line through the White Mountain National Forest.
Northern Pass told Massachusetts officials it will have the lime operating by the end of 2020 if the SEC approves the project on schedule.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com