The Northern Pass was a proposed 192-mile electrical transmission line which would have brought roughly 1000 megawatts of hydroelectric power from Quebec to the regional New England grid. The route, as it was planned, would have gone from the Quebec border to Deerfield, by way of Franconia Notch.
The project was the result of a collaboration between Hydro-Quebec—a state-owned utility of the province of Quebec—and Eversource Energy, a New England-based private electrical utility company. It had an estimated construction cost of $1.6 billion.
These costs would have been fronted by Northern Pass Transmission LLC, a subsidiary of Eversource, and then recouped by way of a 40-year transmission agreement with Hydro-Quebec.
History and route changes
The Northern Pass began planning in 2008, submitting its application with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in October of 2010. The original proposal was for a 1200 megawatt transmission line to be built completely above ground for 180 miles, with an estimated cost of $1.1 billion.
This route met with strenuous opposition, particularly focused on the potential visual impact of transmission towers in the White Mountain National Forest and Franconia Notch State Park areas.
As a result, in 2013, Northern Pass officials announced a revised route that included burying the lines through eight miles of the most visually sensitive areas. The height of some towers was also lowered, and the northernmost section of the route—the only portion not proposed along existing rights-of-way—was shifted to the east. Capacity was reduced to 1090 megawatts and construction cost increased to $1.4 billion.
Additional changes were put forward in 2015. This route included 60 total miles of buried lines, eliminating roughly 400 towers, with a total cost of $1.6 billion. To further alleviate perceived negative impact, Eversource unveiled the changes along with the $200 million Forward NH Fund, which would make grants to support tourism, economic development and community investment projects, particularly in the North Country.
The Northern Pass would have needed approval from several public entities before construction could proceed.
- Because the project involved crossing an international border, it had to receive a presidential permit from the U.S. Department of Energy. The DOE worked with several other public bodies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Forest Service, to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS). That EIS was issued in August 2017.
- The project also needed to receive approval from the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee (SEC). The SEC rejected the Northern Pass project in 2018.
The possible use of eminent domain to forcibly purchase land along the proposed route was an area of concern when the project was first proposed. This led to the passage of legislation which specifically forbids private utilities (which includes Northern Pass Transmission) from using eminent domain to acquire land for transmission projects that are not required to ensure the reliability of the grid.
Impact on ratepayers
The costs of building the Northern Pass would have been fronted by Eversource. The company’s transmission agreement with Hydro-Quebec included payments for the recovery of those costs, as well as other expenses associated with maintaining the line, with an estimated return on investment of roughly 12%. Hydro-Quebec, in turn, would have fund the payments through profits made by selling power through the line. The arrangement did not call for any of the costs of the project to fall directly on ratepayers.
How the power would have been used
Objectors raised concerns that power from the Northern Pass would not have ended up in New Hampshire, instead serving to fulfill energy needs in southern New England. They also pointed out that New Hampshire is a net exporter of electricity.
However, utilities in the state buy and sell electricity through a regional market, ISO-NE. Northern Pass proponents argued that increasing regional capacity would therefore help to stabilize and/or lower rates in the Granite State.
Continuing concerns about the use of power transmitted through the Northern Pass led Eversource to announce in 2016 that it had entered into a power-purchase agreement with Hydro-Quebec. However, the agreement was shot down in 2017 by state regulators who said it would violate state law.
Impact on energy rates
The impact that Northern Pass would have had on future energy rates is difficult to determine, but is based largely on concerns about the region’s increasing dependence on natural gas for electricity generation. Currently, gas accounts for roughly 45% of electrical generation in New England. This percentage is expected to rise with the retirement of aging fossil-fuel and nuclear power generators. Limited pipeline capacity coupled with high demand during winter months, when residential users draw upon supplies to heat their homes, has led to significant spikes in electrical rates in recent years.
Impact on clean energy requirements
The degree to which hydroelectricity from the Northern Pass would have fulfilled state, regional and federal clean energy requirements varied.
- Hydroelectricity transmitted through the Northern Pass would have qualified to fulfill requirements of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.
- The energy would not have met current requirements for New Hampshire’s clean energy mandate, the Renewable Portfolio Standard.
- Buying power from Hydro-Quebec via the Northern Pass would not have required utilities to purchase carbon allowances through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
Obstacles and opposition
Both the DOE and the SEC granted intervenor status to individuals and organizations who demonstrated they had a substantial interest in the outcome of decisions related to the Northern Pass.
- Over 100 groups were granted intervenor status by the SEC, which gave them the right to attend hearings, present evidence, file motions and objections, and cross-examine witnesses. Intervenors included property owners and municipalities along the proposed route, environmental groups, business groups and unions.
- Intervenors in the DOE process included utilities, environmental and citizen groups, towns and property owners. The DOE treats filings from intervenors similar to public comments. They note that stakeholders do not have to be intervenors in order to participate in the approval process.
Burying the lines
Many opponents of the Northern Pass called for the project to be completely buried. Northern Pass officials stated that complete burial would make the project too expensive, driving costs up to around $15 million to $20 million per mile, compared with $3 million per mile for overhead lines.
However, the DOE analyzed complete burial as an option in its draft environmental impact statement on the project, estimating that full burial would result in a total cost of just under $2 billion, or roughly $5.7 million per mile.
Other suggested alternatives to the Northern Pass as it was proposed included:
- Running the cables in navigable waterways
- Using the existing Phase I/II National Grid route
- Relying on other proposed power transmission projects such as the Champlain Hudson Power Express or Granite State Power Link
- Building new power generation facilities within the region, such as new biomass or natural gas plants or wind farms
- Offsetting demand by increasing energy conservation
There are extensive arguments both for and against each of these alternatives.
Ultimate fate of the Northern Pass
In February 2018, the Site Evaluation Committee unanimously rejected the Northern Pass project. Eversource challenged the decision in the New Hampshire Supreme Court, but in July 2019 the judges ruled unanimously to uphold the Site Evaluation Committee's decision. One week later, Eversource announced that it had abandoned the project.
"The Northern Pass should have been permitted to proceed with some (not all) of the lines buried."
- The region is increasingly dependent on natural gas for power generation. Spikes in demand in the recent past, coupled with limited pipeline capacity, have led to significant increases in electric rates. By diversifying the region’s power sources and increasing capacity, Northern Pass was expected to help lower the price of electricity, saving ratepayers an estimated $577 million each year—$80 million in New Hampshire alone.
- With over 10,000 megawatts worth of older power plants at risk of retiring by 2020, the region needs the additional capacity Northern Pass would have provided in order to avoid steep increases in rates, which are already among the highest in the nation.
- By making the region less reliant on fossil fuel energy generation, Northern Pass would have reduced CO2 emissions by around 3.3 million tons per year.
- Northern Pass was expected to contribute around $30 million each year in state, local, and county property taxes, and the Forward NH Fund would have given $200 million in grants to support tourism, conservation, and development initiatives in areas along the Northern Pass route.
- Roughly 80 percent of the project would have been built along existing power lines, limiting impact on views. That route also meant that the project would have been underground throughout the Franconia and White Mountain National Forest areas.
- The project would have created an estimated 2,600 jobs during construction, and priority would have been given to New Hampshire workers during hiring.
"The Northern Pass should not have been permitted to proceed with some (not all) of the lines buried."
- Many landowners and nearby residents said that building the line would have destroyed the region's natural beauty, and would have negatively impacted both the quality of life and the economic benefits derived from tourism.
- Similar transmission projects have been proposed in the region with lines fully buried. What is economically viable for other projects should have been viable for the Northern Pass.
- The value of the Northern Pass lines would have depreciated over time, meaning that its contribution to the tax base would have also gone down. Meanwhile, studies indicate that properties along high voltage lines can lose 10-30% of value, which could have led to property owners seeking tax abatements. This made accurately assessing Northern Pass’s contribution to New Hampshire’s tax base problematic.
- Large-scale hydropower is not zero-carbon, and concerns have been raised about how such projects dramatically transform the landscape and impact local ecology. Reliance on Canadian hydropower may also have undermined the market for investing in more sustainable local renewable energy projects.
- Demand for energy within Canada peaks in the winter, when the New England grid is most likely to experience reliability issues or cost spikes because of increased demand for natural gas. If Hydro-Quebec reduced exports or raised rates as a result of that increased local demand, Northern Pass would not have been helping when the region most needs the additional capacity.