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Do you think energy projects should have to bury their power lines?

Last modified: 11/6/2012 1:21:22 PM
A legislative commission debating whether energy projects like Northern Pass should have to bury its power lines has scaled back its recommendations in response to sharp criticism from business interests and others.

The group has dropped a one-year halt on new projects and a mandate that lines be buried from its wish list.

Tomorrow night, the public will get its chance to review and comment on the commission’s recommendations at a 6 p.m. public hearing in room 202 in the Legislative Office Building across from the State House.

The commission, which includes four lawmakers and officials from several state agencies, was established by the Legislature this year in response to Northern Pass, a proposed hydropower line from Canada, through the state. But that private project, led by Northeast Utilities, Public Service of New Hampshire and Hydro-Quebec, is not group’s sole focus.

Instead, the members are charged with exploring the broader question of using state highway 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?

The commission, led by Sen. Jeanie Forrester, a Meredith Republican, has met publicly 10 times since August to hear from utility experts, Northern Pass officials, state experts and an official from Maine, which is also exploring the possibility of requiring energy lines to be buried. All meeting minutes and the documents the group received from different interests are available at jeanieforrester.com

The state Department of Transportation has identified four highway corridors for burying lines: I-93, I-95, Route 101 and I-89.

The group’s initial draft proposal, due Dec. 1 to the Legislature, called for a moratorium on siting any new major transmission lines for a year, to give the commission more time to do its research. It also said all new “elective” energy projects like Northern Pass that have not been deemed needed for energy demand, shall be buried.

“Undergrounding strikes the best balance by enabling these projects to proceed while protecting the state’s aesthetics, sense of place, property values and tourism-driven businesses,” the draft report read.

Also in the draft report was a new review board, that would evaluate large energy projects and study the cost and feasibility of requiring that their transmission lines be buried on state land. This review board would do its work before the state’s existing Site Evaluation Committee would review a project.

Those recommendations did not sit well with Donald Pfundstein, a lobbyist for Northern Pass, or the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce.

“We have repeatedly been told that (the) commission is not about stopping Northern Pass and that it is not directed at any specific project,” Pfundstein wrote to the committee last week. “Yet, when you read the recommendations contained in the draft report, there is no other conclusion to be drawn than that they are specifically designed to promote legislation to stop Northern Pass.”

Pfundstein wrote that any commission member, including state agency heads, who signed the draft report had to acknowledge the recommendations “are designed to legislatively attack Northern Pass.” Forcing transmission lines to be buried is “designed to attack” Northern Pass by undermining its economic foundation, Pfundstein wrote. Northern Pass officials have said it is prohibitively expensive to bury the lines, which will stretch 140 miles across the state.

Similarly, Pfundstein also said the one year moratorium is intended to delay Northern Pass and to prevent it from striking deals with private landowners willing to sell their land for the project. “Perhaps, the true goal is to delay Northern Pass in an attempt to force it into a state-controlled public right-of-way,” he wrote.

Robin Comstock, president of the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, told the commission its draft report impedes private property rights; ignores the potential cost increase of forcing lines to be buried; and undermines the competitive development market by routing lines onto state-owned land.

While each energy project is unique, “it seems clear that mandating the use of underground technologies for transmission lines will increase the cost of the lines and increase the cost of electricity sold from those lines to home owners and businesses in New Hampshire,” Comstock wrote.

Late last week, the commission voted 10-0 to drop those recommendations from its draft report. Instead members said it needed more time to complete its work largely due to “an absence of detailed input from some key market participants,” the report said. Those key players are identified as transmission developers and other experts.

Forrester has said previously that she had not gotten the kind of information she had hoped from Hydro-Quebec and Northern Pass officials. Hydro-Quebec did respond last month and said its plans for Northern Pass “may adversely affect” Hydro-Quebec’s ability to move forward with the project as it’s proposed.

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


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