New Transmission Line to Quebec?  I Vote Yes.

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Power to the People is a column by Donald M. Kreis, New Hampshire’s Consumer Advocate. Kreis and his staff of four represent the interests of residential utility customers before the NH Public Utilities Commission and elsewhere.

By DONALD M. KREIS, Power to the People

People tend to assume that I was an opponent of Northern Pass, Eversource’s ill-fated transmission project that died an ignominious death nearly four years ago.  But it ain’t necessarily so.

In reality, my phone never rang. By which I mean:  Eversource never called to ask what it would take to get the state’s consumer advocate, tasked with representing the interests of New Hampshire’s residential utility customers, behind the project.

Central Maine Power reached out to my counterpart across the Piscataqua River, and as a result it looks like Plan B – the New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) transmission project – might just get built.  So far, NECEC has managed to survive a gauntlet of legal challenges including one successful but constitutionally flawed statewide referendum.

Both projects had, or have, one purpose – to deliver hydro and wind power from Quebec to customers in Massachusetts to meet that state’s requirements for the procurement of renewable energy.  Like NECEC, Northern Pass would have been paid for entirely by Massachusetts customers and not ratepayers in the host state.

There were also few if any benefits arising out of Northern Pass for electricity customers in New Hampshire – certainly not enough to justify the transmission project’s notably dramatic incursions on our state’s natural landscape.  I would have liked to have a discussion with Eversource about whether it would promise any such benefits, as NECEC’s developers did for electricity customers in Maine.

One company that has clearly learned from Eversource’s mistakes is National Grid, the British electric conglomerate with plenty of presence in New England.  In the past few weeks Grid has rolled out what you might call Northern Pass 2.0, in the form of its Twin States Clean Energy Link project.

Northern Pass would have cut a new swath right through the heart of the White Mountains.  National Grid is simply proposing to run a new transmission line underground for 75 miles and then through its existing transmission corridor.  The line would begin in Vermont at the Quebec border, cross the Connecticut River into New Hampshire at Monroe, and terminate at a new substation in Londonderry.

National Grid’s existing “Phase 2” transmission corridor is not exactly a tourist attraction; if you drive on I-89 through Hopkinton, it’s a familiar sight.  Twin States would involve mainly new wires strung on existing towers, with a few exceptions along the way.

An interesting feature of the Twin States project is its co-owner – a nonprofit known as Citizens Energy.  The Internal Revenue Code allows nonprofits to make so-called “program-related investments” if the projects advance their charitable purposes.  Citizens Energy uses the profits from its investments in energy projects to alleviate poverty.

As I understand it, Citizens Energy intends to deploy its profits from the Twin States program in New Hampshire and Vermont as the host states.  Aside to this fine organization, whose founder and chairman is Joseph P. Kennedy II (a son of the late Robert F. Kennedy who is not running for president or claiming vaccines cause autism):  It would be great if your web site had a more recent annual report on it than the one from 2019 – and a copy of your most recent Form 990 federal tax return wouldn’t hurt either.

But I digress.  According to what Twin States describes as an “independent market assessment based on current project estimates,” the new transmission line would annually save our state’s electric ratepayers $57 million over its first 12 years in service while providing an estimated $200 million in community benefits in both states along with more than $900 in property taxes and lease revenue.

No visual impacts, not just an extension cord connecting Quebec to Massachusetts while passing over New Hampshire, and lots of community benefits.  What’s the catch?

Well, as it happens, there are two.

The first, naturally, is money.  The pricetag, at least as initially estimated, is a cool $2 billion and the business plan depends on getting the U.S. Department of Energy to cover a pile of that via its Transmission Facilitation Program.  That’s a creature of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the bipartisan deal Congress adopted in 2021.

Twin States is competing for funding with other projects – particularly, in this instance, TDI New England.  Featuring a high-flying private equity firm, the Blackstone Group, as its lead investor, TDI would suck energy out of the Hydro-Quebec system via a line to be constructed under Lake Champlain.

The TDI project is much closer to construction than is Twin States.  The worry is that the feds won’t fund two big transmission projects whose purpose is more interconnection between Quebec and our region.

The second problem Twin States confronts has to do with Hydro-Quebec.  Once upon a time, with the tacit encouragement of the huge publicly owned electric company to our north, it was assumed that abundant hydro and wind power from Hydro Quebec could cheaply and reliably meet the bulk of New England’s needs for renewable energy – if only we built the necessary new transmission lines.

Not any more.  Signals of a different sort have been emanating from Hydro-Quebec of late, particularly via the sudden and clamorous resignation in January of former HQ president Sophie Brochu in a feud over independence from the provincial government.  Brochu warned that HQ could run out of power to meet the province’s needs in just a few years, much less take on new commitments in New England. 

Maybe Brochu is just a disgruntled ex-employee.  But a recent study by the Montreal Economic Institute seems to back up her warning, concluding that Quebec will have trouble meeting its own energy needs over the next decade.  So reported the Montreal Gazette last week, noting that policymakers in New England are getting nervous.

Oh and did I mention that during some of the coldest hours of last winter, New England was actually exporting energy to Quebec?  Wisely, and in contrast to Northern Pass, National Grid has decided to make its Twin States project a two-way transmission line.

What these recent developments teach, again, is that no one-and-done solution to our energy challenges is at hand.  The Twin States Clean Energy Link is a useful part of the answer and I have written to Energy Secretary Granholm in support of spending federal infrastructure money on the project.

Why did I do that?  Because they called and asked.

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