By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – The state Supreme Court’s unanimous decision Friday affirming the Site Evaluation Committee’s denial of the Northern Pass Transmission Project has implications beyond just ending the $1.6 billion proposal.
The time has come to have a true regional approach to electricity beyond the Independent System Operator system controlled by the power generators.
The electric industry is changing rapidly as costs of renewable generation sources have plummeted in the last decade making them much more viable and nearly as reliable as burning fossil fuels with the advances in energy storage.
The last decade produced numerous proposals for large-scale transmission lines to ferry renewable energy from the dams of Hydro-Quebec and in the Maritimes, and Canadian wind farms to the Northeast. But none have been built.
Clean Energy Desire
Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island have clamored for clean, renewable energy in several different arrangements with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Act requiring 1,200 megawatts of clean energy by 2020, the closest to fruition.
At the same time, environmental regulations in Massachusetts make it nearly impossible to do what the act requires within its borders with the exception of offshore wind farms, which lately have also run into some stumbling blocks in the Bay State.
The desire for clean energy spurred proposed transmission projects to transport Canadian hydro to southern New England: Northern Pass, New England Clean Energy Connect, Granite State Power Link, and New England Clean Power Link. A fifth transmission project, Champlain Hudson Power Express, would carry electricity from the same Canadian sources to New York City.
To have electricity — clean or dirty — you need transmission lines, some more intrusive than others.
In New Hampshire, Eversource, a semi-regulated private utility, proposed Northern Pass, costing $1.6 billion to carry Hydro-Quebec electricity from the state’s northern border 192 miles south to an expanded Deerfield substation to connect to the New England grid.
The question has always been what is in the best interest of the state when a project like Northern Pass is proposed. Is it jobs short- and long-term, economic development, additional tax revenue, or does it scar some of the state’s most iconic and untouched places, disrupt existing businesses and people’s way-of-life?
Bluntly, the project was proposed by a multi-state company to generate profits from Massachusetts’ insatiable appetite for renewable energy. New Hampshire regulators, officials and hundreds if not thousands of people affected by Northern Pass decided the benefits were not worth the costs.
Maine is grappling with the same issues as the Massachusetts Clean Energy Project moved from Northern Pass to New England Clean Energy Connect — a proposal from a multi-national energy conglomerate — after New Hampshire regulators turned down Northern Pass.
NECEC won the Maine Public Utilities Commission’s approval, is supported by the newly elected governor, but awaits approval from several other Maine agencies, including its Department of Environmental Protection.
Hydro-Quebec’s desire to be the supplier of “clean,” renewable energy for New England and the Northeast has driven some of the push as states seek to rapidly reduce fossil fuel use to generate electricity with the threat of climate change.
Hydro-Quebec has potentially more than 3,000 megawatts of electricity available to send to the Northeast with its current generating operation, but additional power would mean damming up more indigenous lands in Northern Quebec to generate additional energy and that is becoming more controversial.
While the plan was to flow Canadian hydro through the Granite State, New Hampshire produces more electricity than it uses, but outside of the nuclear plant Seabrook Station, most of it is generated by burning fossil fuels.
A decade ago, overseas energy conglomerates used federal tax credits to build wind farms in what they considered ripe territory, i.e. easily approved, until lawmakers made it more difficult. Most of the energy generated by wind farms, for several reasons, is sold to utilities in other states.
Developers have seen New Hampshire as the least restrictive for major energy projects, but that will change after Friday’s Supreme Court decision. Eversource’s sense of entitlement did not escape Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Lynn during oral arguments this spring when he noted Eversource appeared to believe regulators needed to find a way to approve the project once they proposed it.
Approving Northern Pass would have done little directly for the people of New Hampshire. It would have reduced property taxes in host communities, employed workers during construction, and possibly lowered the overall cost of electricity through the forward capacity auctions, but did not allow — due to state electric industry deregulation laws — residents and businesses access to the fairly cheap Canadian power.
Under the current system, Massachusetts’ and Connecticut’s desire for clean, renewable energy, is dependent on Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont being willing to disrupt their landscapes, economies and way-of-life.
Shouldn’t all New England states be able to benefit from lower cost Hydro-Quebec power directly instead of just the southern tier?
Another problem is a mishmash of regulations and clean energy and efficiency requirements in the six New England states.
The developers of the NECEC transmission line need to meet Maine regulations and requirements which are different than the ones Eversource had to meet for Northern Pass and TDI needed to meet for New England Clean Power Link in Vermont.
States also have different clean and renewable energy goals. Just this week, Gov. Chris Sununu, an active supporter of Northern Pass, vetoed Senate Bill 168 which would have increased solar energy requirements to 5.4 percent by 2025, under the state’s renewable portfolio standards, but that target would still have been less than half of what surrounding states require.
Perhaps it’s time to look at electricity in the same way the Northeast viewed carbon emissions when former New York Gov. George Pataki spearheaded the regional effort to cut greenhouse gases called Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative or RGGI.
The program resulted in dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions for the region beset by pollution from states to its south and its own at times unhealthy atmosphere.
A similar regional approach was taken for the Northeast corridor during the passage of the federal Clean Air Act, but that was more to reduce the culpability of states to the west and south that burned low-grade coal to generate electricity sending their pollution over the region.
The Northeast has some of the highest electric rates in the country and joining together to try to stabilize and reduce the state-to-state cannibalization of neighboring state’s landscapes.
The drive to produce more renewable, clean energy is not expected to diminish in the Northeast and with the advances in technology and the move to smaller grid systems, it is time to explore a different approach to reach the shared goals of efficiency, reliability, sustainability and lower prices.
Eversource officials may want to develop a new transmission project and start from the beginning but will the company’s investors be willing to spend another several hundred million dollars on a transmission line that risks being out-of-date by the time electricity begins to flow from Canada into New England?
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org