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Northern Pass fight hits final round as committee prepares for decision

  • The New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee and other interested parties visit a location on Fox Run in Concord that would be affected by the Northern Pass project on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file

  • The easement portion of Dean Wilbur's property in Concord on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file



InDepthNH
Monday, January 29, 2018

The final showdown for the Northern Pass transmission project begins Tuesday as the Site Evaluation Committee will hold 12 days of public deliberations – the final major hurdle for the project’s approval.

During 70 days of adjudicative hearings, the committee heard proponents, opponents and agnostics and now will sift through hundreds of thousands of pages of conflicting information and testimony.

Last week, Massachusetts energy officials gave the project an economic boost when it was selected out of 46 proposals to negotiate with state electric utilities to provide 1,200 megawatts of clean, renewable energy for 20 years.

After that decision, however, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey announced a review of the decision because project developer Eversource – the largest electric utility in the Commonwealth – helped write the request for proposal and sat on the selection committee, as did the second-largest utility National Grid.

And no matter what the SEC does, the battle probably isn’t over. Eversource-NH president Bill Quinlan said if the Site Evaluation Committee decides not to approve the project, Eversource would ask for a rehearing or could turn to the courts. Opponents have also raised the possibility of a rehearing and a court challenge if the committee approves Northern Pass.

One of the key issues during deliberation is expected to be the economic viability of the project. In essence, the question is whether hydro electricity will produce enough money to pay off the loans or bonds used to finance Northern Pass.

The 20-year contract addresses some of the questions raised by opponents’ experts – although an actual contract must still be approved by Massachusetts regulators – but it does not address potential savings to New Hampshire electric customers.

The company has repeatedly said the project will reduce the region’s energy costs by $600 million annually, including $62 million for New Hampshire ratepayers, based on wholesale rates and the forward capacity market where much of the savings are projected.

But other experts hired by the Counsel for the Public and the New England Power Generators Association, longtime opponents of the project, said the savings will be much smaller and may not be realized if a similar amount of generation retires.

Committee Vice Chairwoman Kathryn Bailey asked the financial experts to work together so the committee would have reliable information to judge the project’s viability, but the two sides did not develop one projection.

Lawmakers also directed the committee to determine a project’s impact on ‘the welfare of the population, private property, the location and growth of industry, state economic growth, the environment, historic sites, aesthetics, air and water quality, the use of natural resources, and public health and safety.”

The SEC’s first session begins Tuesday at 9 a.m. at 49 Donovan St., Concord.

The SEC has to issue a final decision by the end of February and a written decision by the end of March.

Northern Pass hopes to begin construction this spring at the Franklin converter station and the Deerfield substation expansion sites, and along the 52-mile section of buried line through the White Mountain National Forest.

Northern Pass told Massachusetts officials it will have the line operating by the end of 2020 if the SEC approves the project on schedule.

Site evaluation process

The state’s Site Evaluation Committee dates back to the early 1970s and was created to help New Hampshire regulators decide large-scale energy projects such as power plants, including wind farms, and transmission lines. Its role has been tweaked several times by lawmakers over the years.

It has nine members: seven of them state officials from bodies such as the Public Utilities Commission and the Department of Historical Resources, and two members of the public, one a member of the New Hampshire Bar Association.

The law establishes four criteria that must be met before a permit is issued:

The applicant has the financial, technical and managerial capability to construct and operate the facility in compliance with the certificate’s terms and conditions.

The site and facility will not interfere with the region’s orderly development with consideration given to the opinions of local and regional planning commissions and municipal governments.

The site and facility will not have an unreasonable adverse effect on aesthetics, historic sites, air and water quality, the natural environment, and public health and safety.

And issuing a certificate will serve the public interest.

The law states that public interest includes:

A balance among significant impacts and benefits in decisions about the siting, construction and operation of energy facilities.

Avoiding undue delay in constructing a new energy facility.

Full consideration of environmental consequences.

Full and complete public disclosure of plans.

Construction and operation is subject to land-use planning, including an integrated resolution of all environmental, economic and technical issues.

(Garry Rayno may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com.)