Distant Dome is co-published by InDepthNH.org and Manchester Ink Link
By GARRY RAYNO, Distant Dome
Massachusetts wants clean energy.
But finding an acceptable way to deliver renewable electricity to the state is becoming a bigger problem than anticipated.
The state’s first choice was Northern Pass, which would have stretched 192 miles from Pittsburg to Deerfield where it would have connected to the New England grid.
The $1.6 billion project to transport about 1,090 megawatts of Hydro-Quebec electricity failed to pass muster with the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee. It said the developer, Eversource, failed to provide enough evidence the project would not hurt the economy, tourism, businesses or property values of the region, one of four criteria needed by law for regulators to approve a major energy project.
Once regulators turned down Northern Pass, Massachusetts energy and environmental officials and the state’s major electric distribution companies — Eversource, National Grid and Unitil — turned to the $1 billion, 145-mile project proposed by Central Maine Power, New England Clean Power Connect.
At the time the proposal was in the early stages of the approval process and rolling along before the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
Once the project, developed by CMP’s parent company Avangrid, became the Massachusetts solution, opposition similar to the tsunami that helped sink Northern Pass formed in Maine.
Public hearings like those held by the SEC on Northern Pass are occurring before the Maine PUC, with deliberations scheduled to begin at the end of next month.
The project has generated over 300 separate filings and almost as many comments, almost all negative. Lawyers from various organizations wrangle over data as the company attempts to reach settlements with environmental groups over things like the proposed Kennebec River Gorge crossing, one of the project’s flash points. Last week the company said it is willing to put the lines underground through the pristine area in hopes of winning approval.
Avangrid wanted to secure all state permits by the end of the year, but that is looking more and more doubtful.
Many of the same groups that opposed Northern Pass are opposing the Maine project such as the New England Power Generators Association, and the same issues over dark money backing what appears to be “grass roots groups” are at play.
Where the money supporting the organizations originates is unknown as it was for several groups opposing Northern Pass.
The opposition focuses on environmental concerns, the effects on area businesses, the lack of benefits for residents and the disruption the project would generate.
The project has been called the most divisive environmental battle Maine has seen in years, echoing similar characterizations of Northern Pass.
In New Hampshire, opponents described the transmission line as a scar down the face of New Hampshire only to serve as an extension cord from Quebec to power-starved southern New England.
Whether the Hydro-Quebec energy is truly clean is another issue. The NH SEC found there was not enough evidence to say there would be meaningful carbon reduction if Hydro-Quebec simply moves its hydro-generated power from its current customers to Massachusetts.
However Hydro-Quebec has claimed it has about 3,000 megawatts of available power to sell into the Northeast. The profit from those sales is what lowers the electric cost for Quebec residents.
The Massachusetts clean energy law was intended to encourage the development of large scale renewable energy projects, but you can argue giving the supply contract to Hydro-Quebec does nothing to encourage new renewable or clean energy projects.
The Massachusetts request for proposals for the clean energy did produce several proposals with less controversial transmission lines, one under the Lake Champlain and underground through a section of Vermont to connect into the New England grid.
That project is permitted and ready to go.
Another proposal would have used an undersea pipeline form the Canadian Maritimes to Massachusetts.
In New Hampshire and Maine, the pitched battles over the transmission lines add to an already highly divisive political environment that has permeated the country in the last decade.
Although the battles over the transmission lines are not partisan per se, the Republican governors of New Hampshire and Maine, Chris Sununu and Paul LaPage, both supported the projects in their states.
The battles are in the court of public opinion, but voters in Maine and New Hampshire have no say over either project, but will be able to vote for politicians in two weeks who have some influence over the outcomes.
While first New Hampshire and now Maine are battle grounds, the chief beneficiary of the projects are the people of Massachusetts, which has some of the most stringent environmental laws in New England.
The regulations may be good for Massachusetts, but not necessarily for its neighbors.
Not long ago, when opposition in Massachusetts to a natural gas pipeline connecting the wellheads in Pennsylvania to a hub in Boston halted the preferred route, developers switched the route to southern New Hampshire.
Economics brought that proposal to a halt, not state regulators or environmentalists.
Similarly an expansion of an existing natural gas transmission line came crashing down when the Massachusetts Supreme Court said the plan was unconstitutional violating state electric industry deregulation laws.
The NH Public Utilities Commission made a similar finding only to be overturned in a torturous and tangled opinion of the NH Supreme Court.
So today much of the natural gas coming into Massachusetts during the winter months when most of the available supplies are designated for heating, comes from Russia where great environmental damage has been done to extract and transport that gas for shipments to Boston and other East Coast destinations.
When it comes to energy, Massachusetts is much like the rich neighbor who owns a right-of-way on your property to his ocean-front beach although he or she has plenty of room on their pristine lot for access.
Maine Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, spoke at a public hearing in Farmington last month in opposition to the Maine transmission line, saying there are not enough benefits.
“We are no longer a colony of Massachusetts,” he is quoted as saying.
High energy prices are a huge issue for all of New England, not just New Hampshire, with large electric users looking elsewhere to locate or expand.
Electric costs also eat up a larger share of residential customers’ budgets than they did a short time ago.
So last year, Sununu unveiled a new state energy policy that was long on reducing costs by continuing to rely on fossil fuel generation as the base.
Under Democratic governors, the state had a policy of using a larger and larger share of renewable energy and last week a some lawmakers and industry officials unveiled a plan for 100 percent renewable energy for the state by the year 2040 or 2050.
This battle will continue for some time and will ebb and flow with the winds of political change.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.