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Why I changed my mind on Northern Pass

Last modified: 4/11/2011 12:00:00 AM
When I first heard about the Northern Pass transmission line proposal, I performed a quick mental calculation of pros and cons. Pro: renewable energy. Con: huge towers going through my front yard. My initial conclusion: We've all got to sacrifice or at least compromise a little to get 'green' power, because it's for the greater good. I'd live with the towers.

I was wrong.

It is clear to me now that the Northern Pass project is wrong for the North Country, wrong for New Hampshire, wrong for the economy, and wrong for the environment. No alternatives or mitigation will make it right. In terms of public benefits, technology, economy and public policy, this project simply does not add up.

New Hampshire does not need this power from Hydro-Quebec. The consumers who could use it are in southern New England. These consumers could very likely include Vermont, if the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant shuts down, which Gov. Peter Shumlin is determined to do.

There are good reasons to locate new power generation facilities and transmission lines closer to where the power is needed. One is to cut down on the significant line losses incurred by transmitting electricity over long distances. A second is energy security. Systems of smaller facilities located closer to consumers are less vulnerable to failure from natural and human disturbances (ice storms, hurricanes, terrorists) than one big one far away. A third is to make clearer to southern New England the impact of new power generation and transmission. Consumers should understand the connection between how they get their power and its effect on their environment.

Perhaps most important, Northern Pass does not represent a public initiative, where presumably a broader spectrum of interests would be reflected and balanced for the public good.

Private interests

It is a private, corporate project to increase market share. The greatest beneficiary of this project (after Hydro-Quebec) is Public Service of New Hampshire and its parent, Northeast Utilities, which are private, shareholder-owned companies. PSNH has been losing market share for years. It is a failing corporation. Northern Pass represents a last gasp effort to boost its revenue, at the expense of our region. Northern Pass is like a private toll road cut through the heart of the North Country - a toll road with no exits and no on ramps, and no local benefits. We would not receive the power, and we could not use the lines to export any power generated locally.

Indeed, Northern Pass would completely unplug any incentive for producing biomass energy locally. Biomass plants are already teetering on shutting down. These plants employ real people, using wood chips transported by real truckers, from trees cut by real loggers, in forests marked by real foresters, on land owned by people who need a financial return in order to manage their forests for the long term. In return, Northern Pass predicts temporary construction jobs, with no guarantee that even that hiring is local.

Northern Pass is dangling financial incentives for local communities. For cash-strapped towns and taxpayers, this may appear an enticing carrot. But long term, these transmission lines are sure to cost towns and taxpayers far more than increased revenue provided upfront. The tax losses from severely diminished property values, the real estate sales and investment in new or improved homes that will not take place, plus the ripple effect of these losses in economic activity, is likely to far exceed additional municipal revenues from the power lines, especially as their value depreciates.

That the first appearance of financial gain may be deceiving is clear to towns affected by the Northern Pass. In a survey, selectmen reported consistent and grave concerns about negative impacts in categories from future job creation and economic development, to town budgets, to wildlife and water resources. And earlier this month, resolutions opposing Northern Pass were approved - most unanimously - at every town meeting where the issue was on the warrant.

Yesterday's technology

Finally, Northern Pass represents yesterday's technology trying to solve tomorrow's needs.

Many energy experts describe a host of innovations in use now, coming to market, or in design that significantly improve the efficiency and lessen the environmental impact of electricity generation, transmission, and use. It is likely that within a few decades, these enormous towers will be relics of a bygone era. Yet their scar on our landscape will remain.

So what if we buried the lines - maybe in railroad rights-of-way, or along Interstate-93, or even down the Connecticut River - all which have been floated as potential alternatives to the towers? The environmental impact of burying is unknown - it could exceed that of the aerial lines. Even if it were known, burying sidesteps the main issue: Is this power line necessary or desirable for New Hampshire?

I'm glad I checked my initial 'math' on this project as more information became available.

I urge policymakers to do the same. I trust they will reach the same logical and sane conclusion: that Northern Pass does not provide public benefit sufficient to outweigh the enormous costs to our land, people, economy and future.

(Rebecca Brown of Sugar Hill is executive director of the Ammonoosuc Conservation Trust, the regional land conservancy for the North Country.)


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