By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH
CONCORD — After two weeks of discussions, the Massachusetts clean energy bid selection committee decided to continue negotiations with Northern Pass, but to also negotiate with Central Maine Power on its New England Clean Energy Connect.
Both projects would bring about 1,200 megawatts of Hydro-Quebec to Massachusetts to help meet the state’s clean energy goals for additional renewable energy.
“The Baker-Polito Administration is pleased that with today’s announcement the Commonwealth is progressing toward securing the largest amount of renewable energy in Massachusetts’ history and will continue to pursue effective strategies to reduce carbon emissions consistent with the Global Warming Solutions Act,” said communications director Peter Lorenz.
Under the agreement reached Friday, the selection committee notified Northern Pass Transmission it will continue negotiations, but with the option of ending negotiations before the March 27 deadline to reach an agreement.
The agreement assumes Northern Pass would be able to meet its original deadline of 2020 to begin operations. The Massachusetts law calls for the program to begin by that date.
The selection team also will begin concurrent negotiations with New England Clean Energy Connect if negotiations with Northern Pass fail. The two projects agreed to the terms of the agreement.
The selection committee believes the agreement will ensure the project will meet its 2020 goal of providing new renewable electricity to the Commonwealth.
Mass. Attorney General Maura Healey said the announcement regarding the clean energy solicitation raises more questions than it answers.
“It’s unclear what happened over the last two weeks to get to this point or what criteria is being used to decide what to do in the next phase on March 27. We continue to urge the parties to fully answer the public’s questions about this process,” said Chloe Gotsis, Healey’s spokeswoman.
In a statement Eversource said the decision is an opportunity to make its case for a rehearing before the Site Evaluation Committee and resuming deliberations, which ended Feb. 1 when the seven-member committee voted unanimously to deny Northern Pass’ application.
“We sincerely appreciate the challenge that Massachusetts officials and their electric distribution companies are facing as they strive to meet an aggressive goal of obtaining a new and significant source of clean energy within just a few short years,” according to the statement noting the project is scheduled to begin operations well before other projects.
“The February 1st decision by our state permitting authority to abruptly halt its deliberations and deny our application was a shock to everyone,” according to the statement. “Today’s decision by the Massachusetts DOER, its Independent Evaluator and the EDCs strikes a sensible balance by allowing negotiations with Northern Pass to continue, while establishing a backup protocol that can be initiated if necessary.”
The company said it believes it has a strong legal argument for reconsideration.
If the SEC denies the motion to reconsider the project, Eversource has said it will appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court, a process that would take at least a year.
Last month, the Massachusetts selection committee announced it had selected the Northern Pass transmission project as the sole bidder to negotiate with the Commonwealth’s three major electric distribution companies, Eversource, National Grid and Unitil.
The Massachusetts clean energy program drew 46 bidders ranging from large projects like Eversource’s Northern Pass, Central Maine Powers’s New England Clean Energy Connect and National Grid’s Granite State Power Link to small wind and solar projects in the Northeast and Canada.
After the selection committee chose Northern Pass, the New Hampshire SEC voted 7-0 to deny the $1.6 billion, 192-mile Northern Pass transmission project saying it would interfere with the orderly development of the region by harming tourism, local businesses and economy, and property values.
The Massachusetts selection committee was scheduled to announce its decision a week ago, but the three utility members failed to reach agreement on the next step forward.
There were indications earlier this week the selection committee could be considering Central Maine Power’s New England Clean Energy Connect. Maine Gov. Paul LePage announced during his State-of-the-State speech Tuesday Massachusetts officials would be visiting this week to discuss the project.
That raised concerns for small project generators who also bid to supply renewable energy for the Massachusetts project.
RENEW Northeast wrote the committee Thursday saying it shares Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s concern that it be a “an open, fair and transparent process.”
Healey had also suggested the selection committee hold another “bidder’s conference” before selecting another project.
In its letter RENEW expressed concern the evaluation team had already made a decision to terminate negotiations with Northern Pass based on LePage’s statement.
The organization and others are concerned that the scoring processing for selecting the winning bid is not know and if the committee is turning to the second place finisher or reviewing all the applications again.
And earlier this week National Grid announced it had reached agreement with Vermont Electric Power Company to support the Granite State Power Link project’s expansion of the Vermont utility’s existing right-of-way through the Northeast Kingdom between the Canadian boarder and Monroe, New Hampshire. From Monroe, the project would use an existing National Grid right-of-way through the Granite State.
The right-of-way expansion through the Northeast Kingdom will need regulators’ approval, as will the New Hampshire right-of-way. National Grid has said it plans to make those applications soon.
In reaction to Friday’s announcement, National Grid officials said they will continue to push their project.
Since the SEC denied the permit, Eversource has urged supporters to contact the SEC and elected leaders such as Gov. Chris Sununu who backs the project, and Senate President Chuck Morse, both Republicans.
GOP House Speaker Gene Chandler is among the legislators who urged Sununu to drop his support for Northern Pass and to back the Granite State Power Link instead.
However project opponents have also urged its backers to contact the governor and the SEC.
Of the 31 host communities along the 192-mile route from Pittsburg to Deerfield, 29 oppose the project, one supports it — Franklin — and Berlin’s support is conditioned on changes to two economic development funds proposed as part of the project and a $50 million upgrade to the Coos Loop so other generators may use the line.
Project opponent Judy Reardon of Protect the Granite State predicted there is no way the project will have a construction certificate by the March 27 deadline.
The project was first proposed in 2010 when natural gas prices drove electric prices higher. Since that time the price of natural gas and electricity has dropped but increased this winter with the cold weather.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com