2018 Stories of the Year: Northern Pass died – but the debate didn’t

  • The Site Evaluation Committee and other interested parties visited a Concord area in the path of Northern Pass. Four months later, the SEC rejected the controversial plan. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 12/28/2018 4:44:26 PM

In 2018 Northern Pass failed, except that it didn’t quite die and even if it did, a whole bunch of related arguments are going to continue for a long, long time.

That was how the state’s biggest energy story played out this year, reflecting uncertainty about the future of the region’s power grid caused by technology changes, deregulation and concern about climate change.

Northern Pass is, of course, the billion-dollar plant by Eversource to build a 1,090-megawatt power line bringing electricity from Quebec’s massive hydropower into the New England market by cutting through New Hampshire. A decade after the idea was first presented it made it all the way to the state’s Site Evaluation Committee in February, only to have the SEC reject the 192-mile plan because they said it hadn’t proved that it would not “unduly affect the orderly development of the region.”

The SEC ruling was a delight to Northern Pass opponents, who had long argued that the path of the large transmission towers through scenic parts of the state was overly disruptive, but even they were surprised that it came so quickly. The three-member SEC panel heard evidence about only two of the four criteria it is supposed to consider before it rejected the plan.

That unusual procedure is a big part of Eversource’s argument that the Site Evaluation Committee should rehear the case, an argument that will be taken up by the New Hampshire Supreme Court next year, keeping hopes alive in Northern Pass fans.

Meanwhile, an alternative line to connect Hydro-Quebec with New England is proposed through Maine by that state’s largest utility, Central Maine Power. It is facing many of the same objections that Northern Pass faced, including concern about the effect of transmission line towers through backcountry regions. It’s not clear how that Maine line and its competition would affect the economics of Northern Pass, since Eversource proposes to sell the Quebec electricity into the open market.

Further west, a similar line connecting Quebec to New York, running down the Hudson River Valley, has received conditional approval. All of these lines would carry about four-fifths as much electricity as Seabrook Station nuclear power plant can put out at maximum.

The impetus for all partly comes from massive dam construction that the province of Quebec has undertaken in recent decades, hoping to turn itself into the Saudi Arabia of hydropower, but it also reflects the changing electricity system.

New England once received most of its electricity from a relatively small number of large power plants burning oil, coal or uranium. Concern about pollution has changed that. Virtually no oil-fired electricity is produced in New England anymore except during extreme cold snaps. Almost all of the coal-fired plants have shut, with Merrimack Station in Bow and Schiller Station in Portsmouth being among the few exceptions. And nuclear power is struggling, as the shutdown of Vermont Yankee showed.

They have been largely replaced by plants burning natural gas, Newington Station in New Hampshire among them, that took advantage of cheap fuel generated by fracking in the U.S. But lately even those plants are starting to struggle financially in part because of changes in electricity pricing caused by the wind power and, more and more, increases in solar power and energy storage. Extreme opposition to new natural gas lines hasn’t helped.

These changes, as well as reductions in need due to energy efficiency and demand response, have upended the once boring economics and forecasting of electricity production. Whether Northern Pass will be part of that system remains a big question.

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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