It may have surprised casual observers on Tuesday when National Grid announced it wants to haul Quebec electricity across New Hampshire using power lines it has owned for decades, throwing a wrench into the six-year-old argument over Northern Pass.
But some longtime opponents of the older plan had a different reaction: What took so long?
“We have long asked the question ... Why couldn’t this existing right of way be used?” said Jack Savage, who as chief spokesman for Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests has been one of the most vocal opponents Northern Pass.
“It has long been thought that the (National Grid-owned) line did not appear to be used at capacity,” said Kenneth Kimball, director of research for the Appalachian Mountain Club, another Northern Pass foe. “One of the witnesses in the Northern Pass case ... provided testimony very recently that that line did have some excess capacity that is available.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean National Grid’s plan, called Granite State Power Link, will get a warm welcome, however.
Few details have been released and many things are unclear. That includes how much work will have to be done at each end of the 112-mile connection in New Hampshire, in and around the towns of Monroe, near Littleton, and Londonderry.
The proposal also calls for considerable construction in Vermont, requiring new, large high-voltage DC towers and expansion of an existing right of way.
Eversource spokesman Martin Murray has said that Northern Pass has looked at the HVDC line in Vermont when planning for project but rejected it as being “fraught with technological and environmental concerns.”
Some opponents of Northern Pass object to the whole idea of bringing electricity down from Hydro-Quebec’s hydropower dams on James Bay. They fear those thousands of megawatts of electricity will overwhelm local and more environmentally friendly sources of energy such as solar and wind power.
This concern, expressed by the Conservation Law Foundation among others, could also apply to Granite State Power Link, although National Grid said the line will not necessarily carry Hydro-Quebec power but may carry power from wind and other clean-energy sources in the Canadian province.
For all these reasons, groups are withholding any judgment on National Grid’s plan so far.
“We don’t have details, and we don’t know what the impacts would be in Vermont,” said Kimball of the AMC. But he added, “If this project would be able to come in without additional impacts on our open spaces – if that is the case, it is unlikely that AMC would oppose it.”
National Grid said it can fit up to 1,200 megawatts of extra power on the AC lines that it owns in New Hampshire just by upgrading wires and associated equipment as part of a $1 billion plan. It said the upgrades would require no widening of the right-of-way cut, which runs through the Concord area, and would use as many as 80 percent of the existing transmission towers even though they are decades old.
The electricity would come down from Quebec on high-voltage DC lines in Vermont, cross the Connecticut River at Monroe, and be converted into AC power for the rest of the trip.
This plan is in contrast to Northern Pass, the plan put forward by Eversource and Hydro-Quebec to bring 1,000 megawatts of electricity down from Quebec. Northern Pass involves a 192-mile route through the center of the state, much of it on an existing right of way but requiring new, larger towers when not being buried, as well as some 40 miles on a newly created route.
Both projects are investor-owned, rather than being part-regulated utilities – Northern Pass is owned by Eversource and Hydro-Quebec, and Granite State Power Link owned by National Grid and Citizens Energy, a Massachusetts nonprofit that said it will donate half its profits to help low-income homeowners cut energy costs in New Hampshire and Vermont.
Both also hope to be chosen as providers that can sell electricity to Massachusetts’s extensive clean-energy program, as part of a request for proposal that will be announced within a week or two.
The existence of this program, and a state law passed last summer that allowed large-scale hydropower to be counted as clean energy, prodded National Grid to move forward with the Granite State Power Link plan.
“Before, they were speculative, not based on guaranteed contracts for the power, thinking, ‘If we can bring it in at a competitive price, we’ll be fine,’ ” said Savage of the Forest Society. The sharp fall in the price of natural gas, the most common fuel firing power plants in New England, “makes competing on the open market a lot more difficult.”
Now the hope is to get preferential treatment from southern New England states because they are selling renewable energy, and “perhaps (get paid) something of a premium for it,” Savage said.
(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)