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From a procedural point of view, rejection of Northern Pass was unusual

  • Some of the present transmission lines that cross Rt. 107 in Deerfield. The Northern Pass project called for much taller towers. GEOFF FORESTER



Monitor staff
Saturday, February 03, 2018

One of the reasons that Thursday’s rejection of Northern Pass by the Site Evaluation Committee seemed so unusual is that it was.

The SEC has ruled since 1989 on all major energy-related projects proposed for the state, including pipelines, power plants and power lines. Of those dozens of projects – as far as anybody can recall – it has outright rejected only one, the Antrim wind farm, although some have foundered on jurisdiction questions and many have been approved only with a host of conditions.

Northern Pass backers might take solace in the fact that developers tweaked the wind farm after the 2012 rejection, removing one of the 10 towers and shrinking another, and got approval in 2016 on their second try before the SEC. But it’s not clear how Northern Pass could be similarly altered to meet SEC concerns that it would “unduly affect the orderly development of the region.” Also, in what Northern Pass might consider to be a sobering note, Antrim wind farm is still on hold because opponents have appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court.

As for the speed of the Northern Pass decision, which came after the panel had discussed only two of the four criteria that regulators said it must consider, that was also unusual and perhaps unique, according to observers of the process.

The SEC has to consider several criteria when deciding whether to approve a project, such as financial stability of the developer and its effect on the state. The body routinely takes votes along the way but those are generally non-binding straw polls, leaving a final yes-or-no vote after all items have been discussed.

This is why so much surprise was expressed Thursday when the SEC made a final vote after talking only about finances and orderly development, not about the other two mandated criteria: the project’s affect on “aesthetics, historic sites, air and water quality, the natural environment, and public health and safety” and whether it “will serve the public interest.”

All this means that Eversource has little in the way of precedent to guide its next move. It has roughly 30 days to appeal the decision or it can take the matter to the state Supreme Court. In public statements, Eversource says it will fight on, but lacking guidance on how the SEC feels about the two criteria that were not even discussed makes the decision making process more difficult.

One thing that isn’t surprising is the way Northern Pass drew opposition. Large electric transmissions are being proposed all over the country, part of efforts to make the power grid more resilient and better able to handle intermittent renewable energy, and most draw outrage of some sort.

For example, in October state energy regulators in Missouri blocked a transmission line carrying power from Kansas wind farms to Illinois. It was a high-voltage DC line like Northern Pass, but would have carried four times as much electricity. The Missouri regulators said the line had to get approval from every county it passed through, echoing the way opposition from New Hampshire towns that would have hosted Northern Pass may have played into the SEC decision.

It’s enough to make a transmission line builder nostalgic for the past. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, HVDC lines were built in New Hampshire carrying 2,000 megawatts of electricity from Hydro-Quebec into Massachusetts, just as Northern Pass wanted to do.

That line, which in the Concord area runs through Webster, Hopkinton and Dunbarton, drew relatively little opposition and was approved by the SEC.

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