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Groups want broader power answers

Last modified: 4/29/2011 12:00:00 AM
A conservation organization, community planning groups and residents are asking the U.S. Department of Energy to examine the effects importing power from Canada would have on New England's environment and economy.

According to the filling yesterday, that comprehensive regional analysis should be done prior to the department's study of the Northern Pass project, which would deliver 1,200 megawatts to the New England power grid by piping hydro-generated electricity through New Hampshire via 180 miles of high voltage power lines.

Taking a holistic view is necessary, the filing argues, because Northern Pass isn't the only proposed project that would bring hydroelectricity south from Canada. The analysis should be done on a regional - not state-by-state - basis.

'When you have more than one project and there are cumulative actions and impacts, you should go forward with a single document' reviewing those impacts said Christophe Courchesne, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, which drafted the letter.

Because it would cross an international border, the Department of Energy is required to complete an environmental impact study on the effects the plan would have on local wildlife, watersheds and people.

The Ammonoosuc Conservation Trust, Appalachian Mountain Club, Coos Community Benefits Alliance, North Country Council, Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and 26 residents also signed the filing.

'It is a way to analyze the bigger picture for a large number of current and future projects. Then you can address the site-specific issues for particular proposals after that,' Courchesne said.

Canadian utility Hydro Quebec is paying Connecticut-based Northeast Utilities, the parent company of Public Service of New Hampshire, to obtain permits and complete construction of the $1.1 billion project.

But according to the filing, the project isn't alone: The department is currently studying another company's plan to bring 1,000 megawatts of hydroelectricity from Canada to New York using underwater power lines, and Hydro Quebec's public 10-year business plan calls for increased power production for export to the New England and New York grids.

In fact, said Courchesne, Canadian hydroelectricity is already flowing through power lines in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The numerous possibilities for future large-scale energy projects in the Northeast mean that a broader view is necessary for the department to bring local issues into context, said Rebecca Brown, executive director of the Ammonoosuc Conservation Trust.

'Northern Pass is a small piece of a much larger puzzle,' Brown said. 'Stepping back to have that broader view is going to be in the best interest of not only the people of New Hampshire, but I think Hydro Quebec as well.'

Public Service of New Hampshire spokesman Martin Murray said that contrary to what the filing may suggest, the challenges and benefits that the Northern Pass project would bring to New Hampshire and New England are unique to the area and can't be lumped in with the other plans mentioned.

'The fact is that there is no other active project like the Northern Pass that is proposing to bring economical renewable energy from Canada to benefit New Hampshire and the region,' Murray said.

Courchesne and Brown emphasized that the Department of Energy can play an active role in the analysis and creation of public policy if it so chooses. Knowing the overall regional and economic impact of imported hydropower would help clear up questions that may be common to several different projects.

If the department answers those big questions now, Courchesne said, it won't have to duplicate its work when the next project pops up.

For instance, many people want to know if New Hampshire or New England needs more power, and if so, if that need can be met with local sources. Others want a definitive answer about whether new projects like the Northern Pass can be buried, or bundled with other high voltage corridors, like the existing direct current lines that run from Canada through Vermont or ones planned under Lake Champlain and through eastern New York state.

Those big questions should not be asked on a project-by-project basis, Courchesne said. It should not, for instance, be a question of whether Northern Pass is willing to bury or couple the lines, but whether it is feasible at all and if it would be in the best interest of the public.

Jeff Hayes, economic development director for the North Country Council, said that without a better understanding of how projects like the Northern Pass would affect property values, tourism, view sheds and the domestic small-scale renewable energy industry, it will be difficult for regional planning organizations like his to do their jobs efficiently.

However, Northern Pass believes that efforts to stop the current environmental impact statement from going forward is not in the best interest of residents.

'The existing approval process requires substantial reviews at both the federal and state level, and are set up to fully consider the public interest,' Martin said. 'The attempt to change that in midstream threatens to delay, by years, the job creation, tax relief, and emission reductions that the Northern Pass offers.'

Still, Brown believes that the prospect of more large-scale hydroelectricity from Canada is too important to the region's environmental and economic future to approve big projects in a piecemeal fashion.

'The (department) has been resoundingly silent on the many questions that have been raised about this project thus far,' Brown said. 'I think if they're interested in the sensible, practical, public policy implications, that they need to take this seriously.'

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


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