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Northern Pass 'runaround' cited

Last modified: 10/14/2012 12:00:00 AM
Lawmakers say Hydro-Quebec and Public Service of New Hampshire have given them less information than they'd like as they study whether the state should have utility companies bury future transmission lines along state-owned roads.

'We are getting a lot of runaround,' said Sen. Jeanie Forrester, a Meredith Republican who is leading the study commission created by the Legislature this year. 'We are not getting a lot of hard information.'

To meet its Dec. 1 deadline for reporting back to the Legislature, Forrester has said she needs the information requested by Oct. 25. Once the draft report is finished, the commission will hold two public hearings, one in Concord on Nov. 7 and one in Plymouth on Nov. 8. In the meantime, Forrester has posted the commission meeting minutes online at her website, jeanieforrester.com.

Several other companies and state agencies, including Unitil, National Grid, the state Department of Transportation and state tax officials, have responded to the commission's request for information. Those submissions are also on Forrester's website.

The commission, which includes four lawmakers and officials from several state agencies, is charged with exploring the feasibility of using existing state 'transportation corridors' for future power lines. The main questions include these: Can future transmission lines be safely buried in those corridors? If they are, can local communities still collect pole taxes? Are buried lines an advantage or disadvantage in storms or natural disasters? What transportation corridors could the state use and would it have to use eminent domain to bury lines there?

In a recent meeting, state transportation officials said sticking to state-owned corridors - Interstates 93, 95 and 89, and Route 101 - would mitigate land-use problems.

The study was inspired, in part, by Northern Pass, a proposal by Hydro-Quebec, PSNH and Northeast Utilities to run a 180-mile hydro-power line from Canada, through the state.

But its focus is broader and includes all future energy projects. Maine is undertaking a similar study now. Rep. Paul Simard, a Bristol Republican on the commission, said he hopes a plan for future projects will spare the state from being crisscrossed with power lines each time a company wants to bring power lines through the state.

'Are we going to be the back alley of New England so all these power lines can come across our state?' he asked. Simard said he's already concluded that future transmission lines should be buried.

Forrester said Hydro-Quebec officials initially agreed to meet with the commission but then stalled about setting a date. They later said they'd answer questions but have not done so, she said.

Forrester put her questions, which target future projects instead of Northern Pass, in an Oct. 5 letter to Hydro-Quebec.

Forrester asked Hydro-Quebec whether burying future transmission lines would be possible as the company prepares to bring more power from Quebec to markets in southern New England and New York. She also wants to know if Hydro-Quebec has plans - in addition to Northern Pass - to run transmission lines across the state.

As of yesterday, Forrester was still waiting for a reply, she said. Reached Friday by the Monitor, Hydro-Quebec spokeswoman Ariane Connor said Forrester is misrepresenting the company's cooperation.

'We are working on a response to her questions,' she said. 'She's been assured there will be a timely response to all these questions. I don't understand what the issue is.'

Officials from PSNH did testify before the commission and submitted a packet of information, but Forrester said it was not especially responsive to the commission's questions.

During her testimony, Donna Gamache, director of governmental affairs for PSNH, said she believes state law already allows New Hampshire to bury transmission lines within transportation corridors.

She was asked by the commission whether PSNH and its Northern Pass partners would consider burying Northern Pass's 180 miles of transmission lines along existing transportation corridors.

Currently, Northern Pass officials intend to run 140 miles of the project's transmission lines within PSNH's existing power line corridors from Groveton, south. Northern Pass would cut a new clearing for the northern 40 miles of lines that will run from Canada to Groveton.

'Northern Pass has a preferred route,' Gamache said, referring to that plan. 'But as we have stated, the process of (the federal Department of Energy permit review) remains open, so we are remaining open to possibilities. We do have a preferred route, but we are open to discussion.'

Gamache added, however, that any alternative would have to be financially beneficial to PSNH ratepayers. She said running lines along PSNH's existing power line corridor is financially beneficial to its ratepayers because the company already owns that land or access to it.

Also, PSNH intends to collect payment from Hydro-Quebec for use of that land and use that revenue to offset charges to PSNH ratepayers, said Northern Pass spokesman Martin Murray.

Forrester asked Gamache 'what it would take' to have a conversation with Northern Pass officials about burying the lines within state transportation corridors. Gamache said Northern Pass is focused now on buying land for its planned route.

'After that, what it takes is collaboration and a discussion,' she said. 'We are always open to talking and to collaborating with the state Legislature and the governor's office.'

Forrester said neither Gamache nor anyone else from PSNH has followed up with the commission with additional information about the feasibility of burying Northern Pass lines.

'They haven't been as forthcoming as they could or should have been,' Forrester said of PSNH and Hydro-Quebec.

Murray, of Northern Pass, disputed that.

'I would take exception to any characterization that we haven't answered questions,' he said. 'We answered all the questions on the day we appeared. We've indicated that we will provide additional material, and we'll do that in time for Sen. Forrester to include in her report.'

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323 or atimmins@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)


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