Northern Pass
12:00 am
Wed December 29, 2010

The Northern Pass: Bringing Hydro-Power to New England

The Northern Pass project promises to be one of the biggest, most complex and controversial issues of the coming year.

When built it’s going to bring electric power to New England from massive dams in Quebec .

It’s renewable power and therefore very attractive to state officials and utilities looking to get away from fossil fuels.

But it’s going to cut a long swath through New Hampshire, much of it forest land.

As NHPR correspondent Chris Jensen reports, the Northern Pass project is likely to affect almost everyone in the state.

At the heart of the Northern Pass project is a proposed power line that would come into the US near Pittsburg, New Hampshire.

The line would stretch south about 180 miles

The first 40 miles would be a new cut through the North-Country’s woods.

The cut would be about 150 feet wide.

The towers would be about 90-feet high.

The lines would then follow existing right of ways, including 10 miles through the White Mountain National Forest.

On some of those existing right of ways the towers could be 135 feet high.

About 1,200 megawatts of power would travel south through those lines.

Most of it is expected to be sold out of state.

Basically two energy companies are behind the project.

One is Hydro-Quebec, which is owned by the Canadian government.

The other is Northeast Utilities, which is based in Connecticut.

It is the parent company of Public Service of New Hampshire

The companies say the project will “provide clean, low carbon, competitively priced and reliable hydroelectric” power.

Brian Bosse works for PSNH.

“What we are trying to do is meet the regional’s state’s goals to provide a renewable energy source to New Hampshire and New England.”

But despite its worthy goals, the project has caused a furor in The North Country.

That was clear at a recent meeting in Columbia between residents and company officials.

CROWD NOISE

As part of a long presentation PSNH’s Bosse tried to explain how the preferred route was chosen.

“We selected the route that had the most limited impacts. We obviously looked at residences, we looked at areas, schools, cemeteries.”

For the most part his efforts did not go over well.

Russ Johnson is a Columbia resident.

“We the people of Northern New Hampshire don’t want you. We don’t want you defiling our landscape and our economy by forcing your way over our forests and mountains and homes and we will fight you every step of the way.”

Others opposing the proposal – in its current form - include the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.

They argue that the project will hurt the environment, reduce tourism and adversely affect the quality of life.

The AMC also said by choosing to cut new right of ways Northern Pass was trying to minimize its costs rather than minimize adverse impacts.

It urged that more expensive alternatives such as burying the lines alongside public highways, be considered.

But Northern Pass says project will be good for the environment. The hydro power will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by up to five million tons a year.

That is, they say, the equivalent of taking almost one million vehicles off the road.

Indeed, environmentalists say hydro-electric power can be pretty good.

But they argue large scale hydro-power can cause its own problems ranging from a loss of habitat to the creation of greenhouse gases produced by submerged, rotting vegetation.

Jonathan Peress is the director of clean energy and climate change at the Conservation Law Foundation.

He says the group has not yet taken a position on the project.

But he has some concerns.

“That large-scale hydro does not comply with the environmental standards necessary to be considered renewable energy in all of the states in New England with the exception of Vermont.”

But PSNH still has a lot to gain if the project goes through, says Peress.

“PSNH currently has amongst the most expensive power plants and power supplies in New England.”

He says PSNH has relied too heavily on fossil-fuel plants and needs the cheaper hydro power to be more competitive.

Martin Murray is a spokesman for PSNH.

“Our fossil-based plants are working effectively and we count on them each and every day.”

Murraysays the company already has some renewable energy and Northern Pass will provide more while helping the economy.

The company’s preliminary estimate is that the project will add the full-time equivalent of 1,100 to 1,300 jobs for each of the three years of construction.

Those will range from construction jobs to being employed at a company selling equipment or services.

But opponents note those are preliminary estimates and would be only temporary gains.

When the construction is done so are the jobs.

PSNH’s Murray.

“There may be a handful of jobs at the converter terminal. The huge economic benefit is certainly during the multi-year construction period.”

What would remain is tax money.

The company estimates annual property tax payments to local, counties or the state will total $15 million to $20 million.

One of the greatest beneficiaries will be the city of Franklin where a new facility will convert the DC power coming from Canada to AC power suitable for use by consumers.

Landowners who will allow the power lines will also get paid for access to their property.

But some landowners who don’t want the money are worried the state might take it through eminent domain.

Others wonder whether the power lines’ electro-magnetic field can cause health problems for those nearby.

For about 15 years the World Health Organization has been studying that question.

The W.H.O. has found no solid links to health problems, but it doesn’t completely dismiss them.

Nevertheless some residents feel the safest thing is not to live near such a power line and they have joined a grassroots campaign against the project, called “live free or fry.”

But they recognize their opposition is formidable.

At a meeting in Colebrook Fred King, who has represented Coos in the legislature, spelled it out.

“This is about politics. This is about big, big-time politics. I have seen them operate in Concord over and over again. They’ve got lobbyists crawling through the woodwork down there.”

NorthernPasshas been criticized at some meetings for not providing enough details.

Those include how much power would be provided to New Hampshire homes and whether electric rates would be cut.

The company says it is negotiating to purchase energy for all PSNH customers and that the project is expected to reduce energy costs for consumers across the region, including PSNH.

More information is certain to come.

In 2011 state and federal officials plan a series of hearings as they consider whether to grant permits.

Meanwhile, Northern Pass hopes to have construction underway in 2013 with electricity coming from Canada by 2015.