Editorial: Northern Pass isn’t ideal, but it’s needed

Last modified: 10/20/2015 12:03:07 AM
The question of whether this newspaper should support or oppose the Northern Pass Hydro-Quebec electricity transmission project starts with whether the line is necessary or advantageous. If the answer is yes, as we believe it is, the question becomes: Northern Pass in what form?

The Northern Pass project, which in its current proposed iteration would carry 1,000 megawatts of hydroelectric power 192 miles south from Quebec to a transfer station in Deerfield, has been in the works for more than a decade. As conceived, it was not needed to guarantee a reliable supply of power to serve New England customers. But that picture is changing.

The 350 power generators serving New England have 31,000 megawatts of capacity, which exceeds the region’s all-time peak demand by about 3,000 MW, or the power from nearly three Seabrook nuclear plants. But ISO New England, the regional power authority created to balance supply and demand and ensure reliability, expects 8,300 MW of nonnatural gas capacity to be at risk of retirement within the next five years.

Those retirements have already begun. Massachusetts’s biggest coal plant and several smaller plants have shut down, as did the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. This week, that plant’s owner, Entergy, announced that it will close the 680 MW Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth, Mass., by June 2019. It also appears likely that the 2,000 MW Indian Point power plants in New York, which supply juice to New England in a pinch, will also close down. Despite conservation efforts that could be vastly improved in New Hampshire, more sources of power will be needed.

Ideally, that electricity would come from wind and solar. The long-term potential is there, but no large-scale, cost-effective means of storing the power for use when the sun doesn’t shine or wind doesn’t blow has yet been devised. In time, yes. Within a few years? Probably not. To ensure reliability and guarantee that the region’s remaining coal plants run as little as possible, we support the Northern Pass project, which does less to exacerbate climate change than fossil fuel options.

In an ideal world, the entirety of the Northern Pass transmission line would be buried, but burial is more costly than erecting overhead lines. Estimates vary wildly, but most multiply the cost by a factor of three or more. At some point, known only to the company and their investors, the project becomes uneconomical. Burying the entire length of the line probably would, as the company claims, cross that point.

This week, following the recommendation of a study committee, Concord’s city council unanimously agreed to request that all 8 miles of the proposed line passing through Concord be buried, but the city has no say over what ultimately happens.

In a sense, Concord has nothing to lose by insisting on burial, and we support the request. It’s what the public wants, and the property taxes the city would receive – estimated at $411,000 to $647,000 in year one for overhead lines – would double or triple if the line were buried. The risk, however, is that if every city and town on the proposed route takes the same position and regulators agree, it could kill the project. Burial also may not be possible, Eversource says, since it has the right through much of its route to erect new towers but not, without landowner approval, to bury a transmission line. Should one or more landowners refuse, no matter the price, the company’s choice would be give up or request a taking by eminent domain, which would spark public outrage.

The potential for compromise exists, and efforts should be made to achieve it. New Hampshire residents, who will see slightly lower electricity prices if the project is built, pay some of the highest electricity rates in the continental United States. Those rates place a special burden on low-income and elderly residents, and work against the state and city’s efforts to attract employers.

Northern Pass is not the ideal answer to the region’s electricity needs, but the ideal, green, impact-free energy is still in the future.

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