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Northern Pass official: ‘This line will be built’

Northern Pass officials told analysts yesterday they’ve repeatedly delayed announcing their new North Country route because they’ve been meeting with communities and “stakeholders” in hopes of accommodating their concerns about the proposed 180-mile hydropower line.

Leon Olivier, chief operating officer for Northeast Utilities, which is a partner on the project, did not elaborate on the meetings during the conference call with market analysts. And Northern Pass spokesman Michael Skelton declined after the call to say who project officials have been meeting with.

“This outreach is not limited to any one area of the project and includes the (140 miles south of the North Country),” he said in an email. “Out of respect for the privacy of landowners, we don’t think it’s appropriate to share the details of these meetings.”

Several opponents in the North Country, where more than 30 towns have voted against the project, said yesterday they knew of no such meetings and had not been invited to any.

No evidence of meetings

Susan Schbianoff of Easton oversees the email list for Bury the Northern Pass, a role that puts her in touch with lots of opponents. “No one has ever written to say that Northern Pass has approached landowners, towns, etc., to ‘firm up support’ for Northern Pass,” she said in an email. “When Northern Pass does approach landowners, it’s to try to get land rights.” She said the landowners are then told they cannot reveal the discussions.

The Colebrook Chronicle has covered Northern Pass closely, and Editor Charlie Jordan said he also had heard nothing about meetings between Northern Pass and concerned communities.

“We are unaware of any meetings, public or private, where Northern Pass is meeting with groups up this way,” he said in an email. “Other than more land being acquired and now registered by Northern Pass, things seem quiet.”

Olivier told analysts yesterday that the new route, which was supposed to be revealed last year, will now be announced in July. Construction would be completed in mid-2017, he said, if the project wins federal and state approvals. Olivier expressed no doubt it would.

“Our view of this is to get it right with the stakeholders now and that will save a lot of problems that you would have when you start the actual siting process,” Olivier said. “So it takes a little bit more time, but this line will be built.”

As examples of negotiation with property owners, Oliver described discussions about putting the line behind a tree line rather than in front of it or trying to lower the proposed 135-foot towers that will carry the line.

Eminent domain issue

“It’s a little different than anything we’ve done before because we’ve always had the right to (use) eminent domain,” Olivier said. That’s not an option here because the project is not considered necessary to maintain an adequate power supply. “On this one, you don’t, and you’ve got a lot of stakeholders.”

The project, which would bring hydropower from Canada through New Hampshire and into the New England energy grid, was announced in October 2010. The project has been delayed several times because of opposition in the North Country, where a new 40-mile clearing will be needed for the line.

Although Northern Pass has bought several pieces of land along those 40 miles, project officials have been unable to connect all the parcels because some landowners have been unwilling to sell. The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests has also joined the fight, buying strategically placed conservation easements to block Northern Pass’s intended route.

Utilities analyst Andrew Weisel of Macquarie Capital in New York asked Olivier yesterday how much longer Northern Pass officials would try to negotiate with the opposition.

“It sounds like you guys are going as far out of your way as you can to try to accommodate that group,” he told Olivier. “Is there a certain point where you agree to disagree and say, ‘We’re going to move forward?’ ”

Olivier replied: “I guess we’ll say we’re not there yet. We are not at a point where we’re going to plow through this thing just because we really do think it’s (a good project).”

Olivier said Northern Pass officials feel “very, very close on this” and will continue working with communities that have concerns. “There will always be some that oppose,” Olivier said. “But once we feel we have broad enough consensus, we’ll move forward.”

Second round of questions

Yesterday’s conference call was the second time this week Northeast Utilities executives were asked about the project’s repeated delays and its opponents. In response to a question Wednesday at a shareholders meeting in Connecticut, Tom May, president of Northeast Utilities, described the opposition in New Hampshire as a “vocal minority,” according to a news report of the meeting.

The Granite State Poll sponsored by WMUR released Monday by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center questioned 507 people about Northern Pass. It found 41 percent supported the project, 34 percent opposed it and 25 percent were neutral or knew too little to say.

The poll also found overall support has remained unchanged over the past two years.

Jack Savage, spokesman for the forest society, took exception yesterday to May’s characterization and noted that more than 30 North Country towns have opposed the project.

“I think that’s a fiction they hope Wall Street will swallow,” Savage said of May’s comment in an email. “If Northeast Utilities’s way of ‘getting it right’ with stakeholders is to be dismissive and condescending, I suspect they will continue to fail.”

Savage said the opposition will continue because Northern Pass officials have failed to make a convincing argument for the project’s need. He said energy economics have changed thanks to energy conservation and the under-use of the National Grid line from Canada.

‘Premature project’

“By any route, overhead or underground, Northern Pass is a premature project at best,” Savage said.

Weisel, the utilities analysts, disagreed when reached yesterday after the conference call.

Weisel said he has followed the Northern Pass developments and has talked to some of the project’s opponents. He said he considers Northern Pass a good project with economic and environmental benefits. He also believes the addition of 1,200 megawatts of hydropower into the New England energy market will improve energy reliability.

His perspective as a utilities analyst, one who must look at the regional energy needs, is different than that of someone living along the proposed route.

Like opponents here, Weisel said the biggest beneficiaries of Northern Pass will be customers of Hydro-Quebec, which will be earning money by selling its power to Northern Pass, and people living around Boston and the load centers in southern New England.

New Hampshire, he agreed, will be a “pass through” for the line.

That’s a main complaint of opponents in New Hampshire. But it’s not a deal-breaker for the market analysts looking at the project more broadly.

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323,
atimmins@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)

The reason that there is currently no viable way to move Northern Pass underground is that all research on high capacity underground transmission was ceased in the 1980's. Cables (which have continued to be developed) cannot possibly be used to cross NH with a 500kV line; the utilities are not lying about that. Cables are fundamentally limited in capacity and voltage by the fact that they must be wrapped on a reel for transport. This is a much more severe limitation when the cables have to wrap on a reel that is small enough to transport by truck or rail, compared to the big undersea cables that wrap on huge reels on board a ship. HVDC cables that are truck-transportable cannot go to 500kV, the Northern Pass design voltage. There are other approaches besides cables, though, including elpipes (www.elpipe.com) that could move far more power underground than is possible with a cable (simply because elpipes use more metal and so can conduct a higher current. "Conspiracy" is probably too strong a word, but there is certainly a strongly shared perception among transmission developers that research aimed at developing long distance, high capacity underground HVDC lines is not good for their business. The US Department of Energy has towed the line since the 1980's, and has done nothing to support development of practical metallic-based high capacity underground conductors...so of course we have no alternative!

In keeping with the fiction that has characterized the official reports about this proposal since it's inception, now we learn that the delays in announcing a new route don't have anything to do with the fact that they don't have one but rather because they have been busy "accommodating". Which side of a tree is hardly the issue and tower height needs to be interpreted in terms of ditch depth, instead. I have never seen an organization less concerned with "accommodating". There attitude from the start has been, - We're coming through - better make the best deal you can before it's too late. They have claimed to have the Governor and legislature on their side so they don't have to worry about public opinion and yet here we are years later and the inevitable looks more unlikely than ever. NH couldn't be clearer in expressing it's sentiments about this proposal. Bury it or forget it - and the "forget it" is looking more and more like the best choice. Mr. Weisel wants to know when they're going to take the gloves off and just force their way through because after all whose state is it anyway? He obviously doesn't think much of NH because public opinion is what got his NY to drop it's damaging overhead transmission proposal for an underground and underwater alternative. Why didn't they "agree to disagree" and just ram that line through?

Northern Pass is a National Security Issue - American needs more reliable, abundant, cheap power to secure America's economic future This power is necessary to pull us out of the Obama economic doldrums .....also we need to get our Congressman to override Obama's stopping the Keystone Pipeline.

Ms. Timmins: a Wall Street stock analyst is not going to say, on the record to a reporter in NH, that a project in a stock he covers is a dog. That way leads to less access to information from the company, and analysts have to have information. Of course he is going to say it's a "good project." A more accurate indicator of his true opinion is to look at the ratings he issues on NU stock. Based on previous Northern Pass delays, Mr. Weisel has dropped his rating from "buy" to "hold." That should have been in your report as well for a full picture. The poll you cite has interesting breakdowns: union households across NH still oppose Northern Pass by a healthy majority, as do registered Democrats. Why? They know this project is a corporate rip-off. If there's any doubt about that, read some of the finer print in the conference remarks. Northern Pass is begging CT for subsidies now that will put an even bigger economic burden on all of New England. This project is a dog. The industry knows it, the public knows it. The only way it would ever come to fruition is to buy the governor, state agencies, and other officials. That is simply not going to happen. It's political death.

P.S. Northeast Utilities System (NYSE: NU) had its "neutral" rating reissued by analysts at Macquarie, who would include Mr. Weisel, today, May 3, following the investor conference yesterday. So much for his confidence that Northern Pass will ever get built.

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