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Renewable-energy plan dies

Last modified: 2/9/2011 12:00:00 AM
Though a bill proposing changes in how renewable energy is classified in New Hampshire was killed minutes into yesterday's meeting, the controversy behind the Northern Pass proposal kept the public hearing rolling on for hours, as supporters and opponents gave heated testimony about the project's impact.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Richard Barry, a Republican from Merrimack, was the first person to address the House Science, Energy and Technology Committee. With the help of the committee chairman, Rockingham Republican James Garrity, Barry emphasized that the bill had nothing to do with the Northern Pass proposal by Connecticut-based Northeast Utilities and Hydro Quebec. Northern Pass would bring 1,200 megawatts of electricity through 180 miles of high-voltage power lines from Canada to a converter station in Franklin and then on to Deerfield to feed into the regional power grid.

Forty of those miles would be new rights of way through the North Country, and most of the opponents in attendance - some wearing hunter orange and buttons that said "Stop the Towers" to show solidarity - were residents of Coos County towns where the transmission lines are proposed.

Dozens of people showed up, making the trek from towns like Columbia and Stewartstown via a bus that opposition leaders organized weeks ago. The small room in the Legislative Office Building quickly filled to capacity, and several of the opponents had to listen from the lobby to avoid violating the fire code.

The bill "certainly has taken on a life of its own," said Barry, right before requesting that it be killed. He also stressed that Public Service of New Hampshire, a subsidiary of Northeast Utilities, had nothing to do with the bill, which proposes rewriting the 2007 law establishing what energy qualifies as renewable to include large-scale hydroelectric power.

"So everyone in the room knows, the intention of this bill was never, ever, ever to create a loophole for the Northern Pass power project. It had to do with looking at the renewable portfolio standards mix in the state to see if it should be mixed up a little more," said Garrity, who then announced that supporters and opponents could use this opportunity to voice what they really wanted to talk about: not House Bill 302, but Northern Pass.

People on all sides were eager to take advantage of the opportunity.

PSNH President Gary Long outlined details of the project, emphasizing that it would make green energy a reality for New England and that, because it is being financed by Hydro Quebec, construction costs would not affect ratepayers and would still bring significant jobs and $25 million each year in property taxes.

"I've been here before. I've been in a room like this with this many people on a different issue" said Long, referencing opposition to other controversial PSNH projects. "And we've always been able to work it out."

He urged North Country residents to get involved in the planning process, including hearings that will be held by the U.S. Department of Energy as part of its permitting process for the project, so that all sides could collaborate to minimize the project's impact while reaping its gains.

North Country residents then took the floor, often reading from written statements they submitted with the chairman. Imagery of big power companies and foreign energy providers using New Hampshire and the North Country as a "conduit," to the southern New England markets was a common theme. Some didn't believe energy should come from Canada, and others were frustrated or scared by the idea of having their property bisected by the project's 135-foot towers and a right of way that required clearing swaths of land 150 feet wide.

Though Garrity reminded attendees throughout the session that the legislation had nothing to do with Northern Pass, some of the bill's opponents referenced the project's size, saying big hydroelectric plants such as those owned by Hydro Quebec didn't achieve what the state's renewable energy portfolio standards were designed for.

"It's ironic that the suggested rule change comes up just as Northern Pass LLC is trying to ram transmission lines," through New Hampshire, said Peter Riviere, a North Country resident opposed to the project. "It's not green, it's not small, and it's not local."

Franklin Mayor Ken Merrifield and City Manager Elizabeth Dragon both spoke about the enormous tax benefits and jobs the project would bring to Franklin and the state. A representative from the Franklin School District's PTO spoke about what the tax money could mean for schools, including what PSNH estimates would be a more than $7.2 million per year boon to the state's education fund.

Opponents recognized the boost the project may give Franklin, and Merrifield acknowledged North Country anxieties about the project, which foes say will reduce property values and tourism.

The concessions hinted at the long road ahead as all parties try to come to an agreement in an economy that has brought many working-class communities to their knees.

"We're struggling every single year to balance a budget and meet the needs of people in our community," said Dragon, adding that Franklin is not the only community that would gain. "It makes a difference to a lot of these communities. It makes a big difference."

(Tara Ballenger can be reached at 369-3306 or tballenger@cmonitor.com.)


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