Editorial: Bridging the gap of energy eras

Published: 7/16/2017 12:05:05 AM

Nearly two years ago, then already five years into the debate about the Eversource/Hydro-Quebec transmission project known as Northern Pass, we swallowed our objections and said something had to be done. Coal and oil-fired power plants were going dark. So too were nuclear power plants, including Vermont Yankee on New Hampshire’s border.

The threat of continued climate change, the needless deaths caused by air pollution from power plants and the mercury in lakes that makes eating locally caught fish hazardous to one’s health all spoke in favor of importing Canadian hydropower.

So did the region’s out-sized reliance on a single fuel – cheap natural gas obtained by fracking, a technology that, like hydropower, is not without its own environmental drawbacks.

Demand for electricity, thanks to better technology, energy conservation and the steady increase in solar and wind power, has grown slowly – but that will change. The need could be met by Northern Pass, whose approval is now before the state’s Site Evaluation Committee, by a similar proposal called Power Link by National Grid and Citizens Energy, a Massachusetts nonprofit, or other players in the energy business.

Both proposed transmission lines would cut through Concord: Northern Pass along an existing power corridor in East Concord and the Heights, and Power Link near the city’s border with Hopkinton and Bow.

The city council wants the committee to reject the Northern Pass proposal unless the line is buried as it passes through Concord, but its representative, Deputy City Attorney Danielle Pacik, said a compromise might be acceptable.

Any compromise must include an alternative to the 160-foot-tall towers that the state Department of Transportation wants Eversource to use as it crosses a bridge along Interstate 393. Towers that tall could be seen, according to a consultant hired by the city, from as far off as Dimond Hill on the Hopkinton border.

A little bit of damage to the viewshed for the sake of cheaper, reliable electricity is tolerable but giant towers visible from miles away are not.

Conducting a cost-benefit analysis of the various plans to bring Canadian hydropower south is frustrating. Facts are disputed, rhetoric heated, cost and benefits exaggerated by dueling experts. What’s in it for Concord and New Hampshire remains a moving, negotiable target.

The job of ISO New England, operator of the regional power grid, is to guarantee a reliable, year-round source of electricity at the lowest possible price. Its job is not to pick the winners and losers in the competitive market to provide that electricity.

Energy from renewable resources that don’t fuel climate change is the preferred source. In fact, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts enacted laws that require increased use of renewables – but in the short run renewables can’t meet the need.

“The region is decades away from installing enough renewable resources and grid-scale storage to allow for complete independence from fossil fuels,” ISO’s president, Gordon van Welie, said in a recent analysis of the region’s energy situation.

We fear he’s right. Power from Hydro-Quebec could buy time while a shift to local renewable energy sources occurs.

Demand for electricity has been flat, but it will increase.

AAA says that the next car purchased by 30 million Americans will be electric, and this month Volvo announced that it would no longer make vehicles powered solely by internal combustion engines.

Someday the electricity to charge those cars will come from solar panels and wind turbines, but not yet.

Keeping electric vehicles charged and powering air conditioners in ever hotter summers means burning more natural gas or importing hydropower.

We prefer the latter.

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