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Northern Pass drops alternatives

Last modified: 4/12/2011 12:00:00 AM
Northern Pass is expected to ask the U.S. Department of Energy to take five alternative routes out of consideration for a project that would bring hydroelectricity through the state via 180 miles of power lines.

The routes were alternatives to what the company calls the "preferred" route, which relies mainly on existing rights of way through the state, and company representatives hope that taking them off the table will show residents in those areas that Northern Pass is committed to minimizing the project's impact.

"We're going to reach out and talk to those communities and make it clear to them," said Gary Long in an interview yesterday. "We don't want people to be concerned when there's not a reason to have a concern."

Long is the president of Public Service of New Hampshire, which is a subsidiary of Northeast Utilities, one of the companies that make up Northern Pass LLC.

The filing with the Energy Department will also address why burying the lines or routing them through Vermont are not feasible options.

The project, which would bring 1,200 megawatts of electricity through 180 miles of high voltage lines from the Canadian border to a converter station in Franklin and then to Deerfield, where it will be fed into the regional power grid, is being financed by Hydro Quebec. The Canadian utility is paying Connecticut-based Northeast Utilities and Boston-based NSTAR to help get the project approved and constructed.

Long said the five alternative routes - which include new rights of ways through several towns east of the White Mountain National Forest, as well as areas in Concord, Canterbury, Loudon, Chichester and other southern towns - were mostly submitted to give the department a wide variety of options to consider. Northern Pass is by far most interested in the preferred route, he added, which would place power lines in existing rights of way, save for 40 miles in the North Country and eight more near the Concord Municipal Airport.

"When we first came out with some of these routes as part of the Department of Energy process we've said repeatedly that none of these routes were certain and we wanted to work with the public and the state to find what was most successful," Long said.

He added that that the company never had a "keen interest" in the alternative routes and that removing them from consideration was a way to show people in those towns that there is no reason to worry.

Opposition to the lines has been strong, with residents and environmental groups highlighting the project's potential impacts to property values, tourism, wildlife habitat and the local small-scale renewable energy industry. Last week, Republicans Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Rep. Charlie Bass sent a letter to the Energy Department opposing the plan in its current form.

The preferred route uses existing rights of way that cut through a section of the White Mountain National Forest in the central part of the state. In order to use that route and avoid having to rely on alternative routes, the U.S. Forest Service will need to grant the company permission to build lines there. Long is hopeful that this won't be a problem, since no new land would need to be cleared and power lines already exist in that section.

Martin Murray, a spokesman for PSNH, noted that while the current preferred route includes eight miles of new right of way through Concord, Chichester and Pembroke, the filing will reiterate the company's desire to use existing rights of way around the Concord Municipal Airport instead. Northern Pass is still waiting to find out if the Federal Aviation Administration will allow the lines in those rights of way or if they will rule that they are too tall for airport safety.

Besides eliminating the alternative routes, Long said the filing will also address the North Country, where residents have been very vocal in their opposition to the project. Northern Pass will ask for more time to collect public comment in the North Country and to explore possible alternative routes and submit them to the department later.

"They want it to be more hidden, they want it to be further away from people and less visible," Long said. He said that the company will look for landowners who may be more amenable to the project and try to plan the route around where the most support can be garnered.

However, because there are no existing rights of way in the North Country, any alternative routes would also require many miles of new rights of way, Long said.

Opponents have called for the company and the department to consider burying the lines or routing them through Vermont, but Long said the filing will address why these options aren't feasible.

Burying the lines will be not only more detrimental environmentally but also cost prohibitive for the project, and the high price tag could scare away Hydro Quebec, he said.

"This project doesn't have infinite amounts of money. It would tip the economics against the project," Long said, adding "You'd have to dig up all the ground and all the forests."

As for routing the lines through existing rights of way in Vermont, Long said that presents a reliability issue - the direct current lines on that right of way have a high voltage capacity, and adding a second high voltage line in the same corridor would be a major problem if an ice storm or some other event threatened the right of way.

Long said he believes the filing is a way to show opponents that Northern Pass is listening to their concerns and wants to work with communities to choose the best route for the power lines.

"The opposition really comes down to people don't want to look at transmission lines," Long said. "We've listened to what people have said. We're going to take these things off the table."

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


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