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N.H. House panel endorses bill encouraging Northern Pass to go underground

A House committee yesterday endorsed legislation that would pressure, but not require, the controversial Northern Pass project to bury more of its proposed 187 miles of electric transmission lines.

On a 12-7 vote, the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee recommended that the full House pass a bill in January to modify the state Site Evaluation Committee’s guidelines for approving elective transmission lines like those proposed in the Northern Pass, a $1.4 billion plan to carry 1,200 megawatts of hydropower from Quebec to the New England power grid through New Hampshire.

The project is seeking several required federal permits and hasn’t yet gone before the Site Evaluation Committee.

The bill, as amended by the panel yesterday, states that “burial of electric transmission lines shall be the preferred, but not required, option for all elective electric transmission lines with supports over 50 feet.”

It also says the committee “may presume that any line not required for system reliability and not proposed to be substantially buried will have an unreasonably adverse effect on aesthetics,” though allowing an applicant to argue above-ground lines are appropriate “due to particular circumstances.”

While the committee yesterday didn’t specifically discuss the Northern Pass project, it is the bill’s obvious target. Critics, including many North Country residents, say its towers will mar the state’s landscape and reduce property values, but project officials have said burying the entire line would be prohibitively expensive.

The latest version of the plan calls for 187 miles of transmission lines from the U.S.-Canadian border to a substation in Deerfield, with nearly 8 miles underground. It’s considered an “elective” project because it isn’t necessary to improve the reliability of the region’s electricity grid.

“We’re dealing with elective power lines. By definition . . . these are power lines which are not required for system reliability. They’re power lines which, presumably, will fatten the pockets of some corporation, but they’re not necessary to keep the lights on,” said Rep. Larry Rappaport, a Republican from Colebrook. “That’s not to denigrate them in any way, shape or form, but it is to mean that we can’t treat them the same way that we treat power lines which are needed to keep the lights on.”

Rep. Jackie Cali-Pitts, a Portsmouth Democrat, opposed the bill yesterday. She took particular issue with the section stating the Site Evaluation Committee “may presume” unburied transmission lines are unacceptable on aesthetic grounds.

“In this country, I believe, we’re presumed innocent until proven guilty,” Cali-Pitts said. “This says you are presuming, ahead of the facts, that this is going to have (an) adverse effect if it’s not buried.”

But Rep. William Baber, a Dover Democrat, said it’s well within the Legislature’s purview to make such policy decisions.

“We are changing policy, and that’s our role,” Baber said. He said the bill “represents a thoughtful, measured compromise” that “allows for some discretion.”

The committee eventually voted, 14-5, to amend an existing bill with the new language, then voted, 12-7, to recommend the full House pass it.

“From our perspective, it’s a good first step. It’s a long way from changed law, but it’s a good first step,” said Jack Savage, vice president for communications at the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, a leading Northern Pass critic. “Not just because of the Northern Pass. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that there may more transmission proposals coming down from Canada. . . . Making the SEC more flexible and being able to make sure these transmission proposals meet the needs of New Hampshire . . . is really important.”

Northeast Utilities, the parent company of Public Service of New Hampshire and the Northern Pass project, isn’t pleased.

“We are very concerned with the signal this legislation will send to the business community and the uncertainty it will create as to the future cost of energy in New Hampshire. . . . Legislation like this is a roadblock to addressing the energy challenges we are facing and exposes customers to the risk of higher, more volatile prices and the prospect of not developing the new sources of energy we need,” wrote spokesman Michael Skelton in an email.

The Science, Technology and Energy Committee yesterday also took up a half-dozen other bills aimed either at electric transmission lines or wind turbines. On a series of lopsided votes, the panel recommended the full House kill all six.

All seven bills, plus other bills retained by various committees this year for additional work, will go to the House floor in January.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

Mike Skelton's worries don't tell the whole story. HB 569 is intended to discourage damaging elective transmission projects that would have negative economic impacts on all NH residents. His project is a prime example. But the rest of the story is that this bill should signal to other merchant developers that NH is open for business if their project is to the mutual benefit of the company and the state. We have very recent proof that the latter developers are waiting in the wings in TDI - Blackstone's proposed underground line in VT. HB 569 will give them the green light to think about NH now.

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