Feds should weigh all energy options

Last modified: 7/15/2011 12:00:00 AM
When you don't have a plan, it shows. The would-be developer of the Northern Pass project and its partner PSNH are scrambling to find a path of least resistance for transmission lines from the Canadian border to Groveton. Whatever 'Plan B' emerges, it will no doubt incite a new wave of opposition and do nothing to address the concerns of residents along the proposed route south to Deerfield.

Meanwhile, the Department of Energy has delayed the environmental review of the project and has yet to name a consultant to assist with that review, saying the process will start again at a time of Northern Pass's choosing.

By contrast, Quebec Premier Jean Charest is on a world tour seeking investors in 'Plan Nord,' an $80 billion development plan for Quebec's far north. More than 10 years in the making, the plan builds on Hydro-Quebec's own strategic plan to increase exports and includes thousands of megawatts of damming projects that Hydro-Quebec intends to sell into New England and the northeastern United States.

Quebec clearly has a plan for exporting power, promising decades of profits for the provincial treasury. Yet our federal energy agency is sitting back, waiting for a Hydro-Quebec-backed developer to call the shots.

The delays mean the Department of Energy still has a golden opportunity to change course - to start acting proactively and in the public interest.

In April, we filed a motion asking for a regional energy study to assess the nature and extent of New England's need for Canadian hydropower and to develop an appropriate plan to bring that power into the region. Aside from Northern Pass, there are other international transmission proposals, including a project to bury transmission lines down the Hudson River in New York and a brand-new plan from National Grid to connect wind and hydro resources in northern Maine and eastern Canada with Massachusetts via an underground transmission line in existing rights of way and transportation corridors. It only makes sense to consider all the common issues - such as the fossil-fuel power that imports should displace, the impacts on local renewable projects and all the alternative routes and transmission technologies - that should be understood in order to inform the Energy Department's review of Northern Pass and other future projects.

A regional, holistic study is essential to determine if there are other, better ways to facilitate (or avoid) imports, with as many economic benefits and as little community and environmental damage as possible. The analysis should address more than the least opposed route in Coos County. Investments in energy efficiency, reconfiguring the existing line through Vermont and New Hampshire, burial of lines in transportation rights of way, and adding capacity to the Hudson River project are among the alternatives that should be on the table. If any options have superior benefits and fewer impacts, it would be hard for the Energy Department to certify that the proposed Northern Pass project is in the 'public interest' and should be granted a permit.

Within a week of our motion for this regional assessment, Northern Pass's PR machine flatly dismissed our request as a 'delay tactic,' without explaining why a regional study shouldn't happen or mentioning that Northern Pass's own blunders have been responsible for all delays to date. The government has yet to respond, other than to state that it would not respond to individual motions during the permitting process.

The environmental review for Northern Pass hasn't even gotten off the ground. The Department of Energy should prepare a comprehensive regional study now. Quebec has a plan; we should too.

(Tom Irwin is vice president and New Hampshire director of the Conservation Law Foundation. Susan Arnold is vice president for conservation at the Appalachian Mountain Club. This piece was also signed by Rebecca Brown, executive director of the Ammonoosuc Conservation Trust; Michael King, executive director of the North Country Council; and Will Abbott, vice president for policy and land management at the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.)




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