What does the quick approval of a Vermont power line say about Northern Pass?

Monitor staff
Friday, January 08, 2016
With an ease that must make Northern Pass fans gnash their teeth with envy, a powerline connecting Quebec hydropower to New England via Vermont has zipped through the approval process and could begin construction this year.

In New Hampshire, where Northern Pass is about to enter yet another round of public hearings starting Monday evening in Franklin, the question is what Vermont’s final okay of New England Clean Power Link says about the likelihood of a similar line being built in New Hampshire.

Northern Pass supporters say private developers’ interest in paying for the Vermont line emphasizes the region’s need to connect with Quebec, the “Saudi Arabia of hydropower,” both to control high energy costs and reduce emissions.

But Northern Pass opponents say the fact that 1,000 megawatts of Quebec hydropower will enter New England via a $1.2 billion power line running under Lake Champlain means we won’t need to put a similarly sized, $1.6 billion line through New Hampshire’s woods.

Which argument is right? Unfortunately for those seeking guidance, a couple of analysts of the region’s energy scene say the answer is somewhere between “both” and “we’ll see.”

“In all of these different contexts, people typically talk about one or two major transmission lines, major infrastructure projects. But it’s not definitive how many of the energy markets it can support financially, so it’s not definitive whether there will be just one line built or two lines built,” said Paul Hibbard, vice president of Analysis Group Inc. in Boston and a former utilities official in Massachusetts.

Hibbard noted that other proposals have been floated in Maine to bring Quebec hydropower and Maine wind power to Boston and southern New England, offering possible competition. There’s also a proposal to build a power line under Lake Champlain and the Hudson River connecting Quebec with New York, which is a separate grid but could still affect New England.

Quebec, a major supplier of electricity to the northeastern U.S., is eager to sell more power, said Pierre-Olivier Pineau, a professor at HEC Montreal, a management education and research university in Quebec’s largest city. Hydro-Quebec’s new CEO, Eric Martel, said repeatedly in meetings last summer that he would be seeking to export more electricity because the province generates more than it can use.

“There are also discussions with Ontario to send more power to that province,” Pineau said Thursday. “In the short term, it’s impossible for Hydro-Quebec to supply all of these if they were all interested, so I would say there is some competition between (Vermont and New Hampshire lines) in the short term.”

But a decade down the road, he said, the massive series of dams in northern Quebec will produce more than enough electricity for almost any potential customers, especially because there’s a whopping 30 terawatt hours per year being wasted inside Quebec, where electricity is cheap. That’s the equivalent of roughly one-quarter of New England’s total electricity usage in 2014.

“There are a lot of studies that we should free 30 terawatt hours within Quebec if we were just doing minimal energy efficiency programs. That could free up a lot of energy that could be sold in the medium term,” Pineau said.

The Vermont powerline project, called New England Clean Power Link, received a certificate of public good from Vermont on Tuesday, the final approval step. It was first proposed in 2013, while Northern Pass dates back to 2010.

The 154-mile, $1.2 billion line carrying 1,000 megawatts of power is backed by a group of developers known as TDI New England.

It has generated very little opposition since it was proposed in 2013, largely because almost 100 miles of cable would be laid in a trench at the bottom of Lake Champlain, removing concerns about destruction of scenic vistas and property values that have plagued Northern Pass. The Connecticut River in northern New Hampshire is too shallow for Northern Pass to try a similar trick.

Power Link’s final 57 miles would cut underground across Vermont in existing rights of way to Ludlow, where a new substation would be built to feed power into the six-state electric grid.

Northern Pass, a $1.6 billion plan for a 192-mile transmission line carrying almost 1,100 megawatts, does have at least one advantage over New England Power Link. Because Northern Pass would be jointly owned by Hydro-Quebec and Eversource, it has guaranteed access to Quebec’s electricity as well as existing approval to connect with New England’s grid.

With no utility owner, Power Link only has solicitations of interest from customers for the long-term contracts that are necessary in funding massive power transmission projects, and would need interconnection approval.

The driving force behind all these projects dates back to the 1960s, when Quebec nationalized its hydropower system, Pineau said. That launched the construction of dozens of dams throughout the water-rich province, some of them truly huge: The Robert-Bourassa power station, for example, can generate five times as much electricity as Seabrook Station nuclear power plant, while seven other dams can each generate at least as much power as Seabrook.

The construction of these dams has not been without controversy, because the resulting reservoirs displaced native peoples and swamped ecosystems covering hundreds of square miles, including an infamous 1984 drowning of some 10,000 caribou during a water release from a dam. Some environmentalists argue that such problems mean large-scale hydropower should not be considered clean energy, noting that drowned forests release methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as they rot.

Hydropower is generally counted as a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels, although it isn’t always eligible for renewable energy credits which help finance solar and wind projects.

Pineau said that in 2014, Quebec exported 31 terawatt hours of electricity, about three-quarters to the U.S. The bulk of its U.S. exports went to Vermont and New York state, with only about one-ninth going to the rest of New England. About one-third of Vermont’s entire electricity usage comes from Quebec.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)