Editorial: Energy corridor study holds tremendous promise
While the expensive chess game between Public Service of New Hampshire and environmental groups seeking to block the Northern Pass transmission line project grinds on, another less noticed but potentially more important effort has been under way on the energy front. It’s the investigation by a committee of lawmakers, state agencies and utilities into the feasibility of developing state energy corridors along Interstates 93, 95 and 89 and Route 101. The investigation’s outcome could amount to little if the idea proves impractical. But it just might be critical to the economic and aesthetic welfare of the state.
Proponents of an interstate power corridor obviously hope that creating one would spell the end of Northern Pass’s plan to build a 180-mile high-voltage and high-visibility power line down the spine of the state. But put Northern Pass aside for now. Creating a state-owned corridor that utilities could use to run not just electric transmission lines but perhaps also fiber optic cables or natural gas pipelines, is an idea worth pursuing. Maine, Vermont and other states, after all, already are.
This is a dream version of what could come to pass. In it, utilities conclude that burying the lines along the corridor is not cost prohibitive. Since the land has already been scarred, damage to the environment is minimal and the digging is easy. The state is spared the visual blight of additional forest clearing, and property values are preserved. Finally, the state gets a new revenue source that comes with leasing space on the corridor or assessing a per-unit transmission fee. If the commodity is electricity, for example, the fee could be so many mills per megawatt. In true New Hampshire fashion, the money generated would come from users in other states. How much revenue, at this point, is anyone’s guess.
Maine has already designated a highway corridor called the Northeast Energy Link. Two international companies hope to use to the link to carry 1,100 megawatts of wind and hydroelectric power from Canada and Maine south through New Hampshire to Massachusetts. Vermont has gotten into the game too. It’s exploring corridors of its own to transmit Canadian power south along Interstate 91 and under Lake Champlain to New York City. Eastern Canada has plans for an additional 20,000 megawatts of hydropower – the equivalent of 18 Seabrook nuclear power plants. That power needs a way to flow south to the American market, and the route for some of it could be through New Hampshire.
Burying power lines, depending on local conditions, is four to 14 times more expensive than building overhead line. And while underground lines break down far less often, when something does go wrong they are more costly to repair and take longer to fix. In its draft report, the legislative committee studying power corridors recommended a one-year moratorium on new power line construction and a requirement that new lines be buried. Both recommendations struck us as premature and were wisely removed. Too little is known to make such sweeping recommendations. What, for example, would importing huge amounts of hydropower from Canada mean for domestic clean energy prospects? Would the imports lead to the closure of the East’s aged coal-fired power plants? How much more secure would new underground transmission lines along interstates make the region’s electric grid? What would the impact on consumer prices be in conduit states like New Hampshire? The committee, led by Meredith Sen. Jeanie Forrester has a lot of questions to answer, but its work holds a lot of promise for the state, its taxpayers, the environment and the economy.