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Northern Pass official: ‘This line will be built’

Last modified: 5/4/2013 1:38:21 AM
Northern Pass officials told analysts yesterday they’ve repeatedly delayed announcing their new North Country route because they’ve been meeting with communities and “stakeholders” in hopes of accommodating their concerns about the proposed 180-mile hydropower line.

Leon Olivier, chief operating officer for Northeast Utilities, which is a partner on the project, did not elaborate on the meetings during the conference call with market analysts. And Northern Pass spokesman Michael Skelton declined after the call to say who project officials have been meeting with.

“This outreach is not limited to any one area of the project and includes the (140 miles south of the North Country),” he said in an email. “Out of respect for the privacy of landowners, we don’t think it’s appropriate to share the details of these meetings.”

Several opponents in the North Country, where more than 30 towns have voted against the project, said yesterday they knew of no such meetings and had not been invited to any.

No evidence of meetings

Susan Schbianoff of Easton oversees the email list for Bury the Northern Pass, a role that puts her in touch with lots of opponents. “No one has ever written to say that Northern Pass has approached landowners, towns, etc., to ‘firm up support’ for Northern Pass,” she said in an email. “When Northern Pass does approach landowners, it’s to try to get land rights.” She said the landowners are then told they cannot reveal the discussions.

The Colebrook Chronicle has covered Northern Pass closely, and Editor Charlie Jordan said he also had heard nothing about meetings between Northern Pass and concerned communities.

“We are unaware of any meetings, public or private, where Northern Pass is meeting with groups up this way,” he said in an email. “Other than more land being acquired and now registered by Northern Pass, things seem quiet.”

Olivier told analysts yesterday that the new route, which was supposed to be revealed last year, will now be announced in July. Construction would be completed in mid-2017, he said, if the project wins federal and state approvals. Olivier expressed no doubt it would.

“Our view of this is to get it right with the stakeholders now and that will save a lot of problems that you would have when you start the actual siting process,” Olivier said. “So it takes a little bit more time, but this line will be built.”

As examples of negotiation with property owners, Oliver described discussions about putting the line behind a tree line rather than in front of it or trying to lower the proposed 135-foot towers that will carry the line.

Eminent domain issue

“It’s a little different than anything we’ve done before because we’ve always had the right to (use) eminent domain,” Olivier said. That’s not an option here because the project is not considered necessary to maintain an adequate power supply. “On this one, you don’t, and you’ve got a lot of stakeholders.”

The project, which would bring hydropower from Canada through New Hampshire and into the New England energy grid, was announced in October 2010. The project has been delayed several times because of opposition in the North Country, where a new 40-mile clearing will be needed for the line.

Although Northern Pass has bought several pieces of land along those 40 miles, project officials have been unable to connect all the parcels because some landowners have been unwilling to sell. The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests has also joined the fight, buying strategically placed conservation easements to block Northern Pass’s intended route.

Utilities analyst Andrew Weisel of Macquarie Capital in New York asked Olivier yesterday how much longer Northern Pass officials would try to negotiate with the opposition.

“It sounds like you guys are going as far out of your way as you can to try to accommodate that group,” he told Olivier. “Is there a certain point where you agree to disagree and say, ‘We’re going to move forward?’ ”

Olivier replied: “I guess we’ll say we’re not there yet. We are not at a point where we’re going to plow through this thing just because we really do think it’s (a good project).”

Olivier said Northern Pass officials feel “very, very close on this” and will continue working with communities that have concerns. “There will always be some that oppose,” Olivier said. “But once we feel we have broad enough consensus, we’ll move forward.”

Second round of questions

Yesterday’s conference call was the second time this week Northeast Utilities executives were asked about the project’s repeated delays and its opponents. In response to a question Wednesday at a shareholders meeting in Connecticut, Tom May, president of Northeast Utilities, described the opposition in New Hampshire as a “vocal minority,” according to a news report of the meeting.

The Granite State Poll sponsored by WMUR released Monday by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center questioned 507 people about Northern Pass. It found 41 percent supported the project, 34 percent opposed it and 25 percent were neutral or knew too little to say.

The poll also found overall support has remained unchanged over the past two years.

Jack Savage, spokesman for the forest society, took exception yesterday to May’s characterization and noted that more than 30 North Country towns have opposed the project.

“I think that’s a fiction they hope Wall Street will swallow,” Savage said of May’s comment in an email. “If Northeast Utilities’s way of ‘getting it right’ with stakeholders is to be dismissive and condescending, I suspect they will continue to fail.”

Savage said the opposition will continue because Northern Pass officials have failed to make a convincing argument for the project’s need. He said energy economics have changed thanks to energy conservation and the under-use of the National Grid line from Canada.

‘Premature project’

“By any route, overhead or underground, Northern Pass is a premature project at best,” Savage said.

Weisel, the utilities analysts, disagreed when reached yesterday after the conference call.

Weisel said he has followed the Northern Pass developments and has talked to some of the project’s opponents. He said he considers Northern Pass a good project with economic and environmental benefits. He also believes the addition of 1,200 megawatts of hydropower into the New England energy market will improve energy reliability.

His perspective as a utilities analyst, one who must look at the regional energy needs, is different than that of someone living along the proposed route.

Like opponents here, Weisel said the biggest beneficiaries of Northern Pass will be customers of Hydro-Quebec, which will be earning money by selling its power to Northern Pass, and people living around Boston and the load centers in southern New England.

New Hampshire, he agreed, will be a “pass through” for the line.

That’s a main complaint of opponents in New Hampshire. But it’s not a deal-breaker for the market analysts looking at the project more broadly.

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


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