Editorial: Amid climate crisis, we cannot dismiss Northern Pass
In May, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hit 400 parts per million, the highest level in more than 3 million years. If nothing is done to reduce carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, the globe’s average temperature increase could top 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). That’s the level beyond which many scientists believe glaciers will melt even more rapidly and global crop failures could be widespread. At current emission levels, according to the International Energy Agency, the world is poised to see an average temperature increase of 3.6 to 5.3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.
During last week’s heat wave, New England’s power plants, including the ancient coal plant in Bow, had to be run full-blast to keep the region’s air conditioners working. The plants, most of them powered by natural gas, pumped carbon dioxide into the air, feeding global warming. This loop must be broken. That’s the backdrop behind the Monitor’s consideration of Public Service of New Hampshire’s controversial Northern Pass project to bring hydroelectric power south from Quebec.
Energy conservation and the increased use of power from the sun, wind and tides won’t, in the foreseeable future, come remotely close to meeting the energy needs of the region or world. Especially in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan, building more nuclear power plants, at least in New England, is politically and economically impossible. But something must be done or, if the worst predictions come true, Portsmouth will be under water.
Large-scale hydroelectric projects like those built by Quebec’s government are not environmentally benign, but on balance their power is cleaner than the electricity produced by burning fossil fuels.
The 1,200 megawatts of energy the Northern Pass line will carry will displace more expensive electricity generated at fossil fuel plants. Most of the fuel displaced will be natural gas, but importing Quebec power will mean that coal- and oil-fired plants like those owned by PSNH will operate even less often than they do now.
Opposition to the new 187-mile DC power line, chiefly by North Country residents and major environmental organizations, forced PSNH to improve its plan by, among other things, altering the route and lowering many towers. The average height, the utility says, will be 85 feet, about the height of a full-grown red oak and 30 or 40 feet shorter than a prime white pine. Some towers will top the trees and, depending on their proximity to the line, some properties will lose value. Within limits, their owners should be compensated. But the doomsday talk of a collapse of the tourist industry and real estate values is just that, doomsday talk. The impact, we believe, will be modest to minimal.
The utility now wants to bury 8 miles of line under roads in several North Country towns, a decision forced on it by successful efforts to block other routes with conservation easements. Burying the entire power line is not feasible economically nor wise environmentally, at least not along the utility’s existing 140-mile right-of-way, which passes through the White Mountains. But PSNH’s transmission corridor is probably its biggest asset, an asset whose value will increase drastically if Hyro Quebec builds the $1.2 billion line along it. The company may need to further monetize the line to survive economically. We recognize that.
Ideally, the state would have created a publicly-owned energy corridor along highways and railroad beds years ago to permit the easy burial of power lines. The impact on the landscape would be minimal; the revenue received would go to taxpayers, not corporate stockholders. The Legislature is exploring the possibility of doing so, and it should act with dispatch. Hydro Quebec appears destined to expand and the need to lower the region’s energy costs, reduce carbon emissions and guard against a spike in the natural gas that now powers the economy is real.
For now, however, the climate clock is ticking, no state energy corridor is in sight, and no one else has a project in the works that could lead to as big a reduction in carbon emissions.
The Northern Pass project could be further improved, perhaps by burying more of it in scenic areas, but should not be rejected out of hand.