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My Turn: Bury the power lines, not the project

Last modified: 10/4/2014 12:15:12 AM
Whenever I’ve been asked about my position on the Northern Pass project, I’ve always been supportive, and remain so. My hometown of Deerfield would benefit greatly, as the project would generate significant property tax revenue.

I also believe in the free market. I don’t think our government should prevent a legal, responsible company like Northeast Utilities from pursuing a project to expand its electric distribution system, as long as the plan complies with the same environment protections we require of all others. Adding clean, inexpensive hydropower to the New England electric grid would lower electric bills for everyone. As a consistent supporter of Northern Pass, I’ve been persuaded that it’s time to bury the lines.

As a strong adherent of the free market, I would prefer to see electric utilities competing for our business. New Hampshire has moved toward competition, as we can choose where our power comes from. But the distribution of that power is still a monopoly, micromanaged by state officials.

New Hampshire’s Public Utilities Commission is a huge, taxpayer-funded bureaucracy that tells electric utilities where they have to get their power, when they can invest in their distribution networks and how much they can charge. The PUC is supposed to protect New Hampshire consumers, but its real impacts are to decrease competition and keep new companies from rising up to challenge the established utilities.

So as we debate the Northern Pass project, keep in mind that our options for bringing new sources of electricity to market are limited by the expensive government agencies we’ve created.

New Hampshire, and indeed all of New England, would benefit greatly if we could find an affordable and environmentally friendly way to bring down power from Hydro-Quebec. Over time, lower electric rates would more than make up for the considerable cost of building new power lines. Holding down those costs would mean even more savings on our electric bills.

The greatest opposition to Northern Pass isn’t environmental; it’s aesthetic. Residents of Coos and Grafton Counties are understandably concerned that the large towers needed for such high-capacity power lines would mar their rural landscape. Burying the lines would avoid this problem, but the project would be more expensive to build and maintain.

But how much more expensive?

Northern Pass says it would cost $20 million per mile to bury the lines, compared with $3 million per mile for aerial construction. If true, this might make burial cost prohibitive. But I’m not convinced burial would end up costing nearly as much as Northern Pass estimates.

Let’s look at a similar project in upstate New York. The Champlain Hudson Project is quite similar to the Northern Pass proposal. The original cost when presented by Con Edison (the New York equivalent of PSNH) was $11 billion, but the actual cost presented by transmission developers ended up being just $2.2 billion. So should we believe the $20 million per mile estimate?

Whatever it costs will end up having to be repaid by you and me. The PUC allows utilities to recoup the cost of their infrastructure investments from ratepayers. Northern Pass would save consumers hundreds of millions of dollars a year on their power bills. But that could be less if construction costs are too high.

The high cost of electricity in New Hampshire may be the largest impediment to new business creation in our state, as well as a burden on New Hampshire families. Bringing those costs down is why I continue to support Northern Pass.

We can mitigate the impact of this project on New Hampshire’s North Country by burying the lines, and using whenever possible existing rights-of-way along our highways. Northern Pass has been reluctant to consider burying the lines in the highway right-of-way, largely because Northeast Utilities would prefer to rent its existing right-of-way for new towers. But I’m not convinced this is sufficient reason to do so.

Burying the transmission lines would address the largest remaining objection to Northern Pass and preserve the North Country’s scenic views. And it would still deliver significant savings on our electric bills. Let’s bury the lines and keep the project.

(State Sen. John Reagan is a Deerfield Republican.)


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