Modifies the criteria the Site Evaluation Committee must consider when approving a project, to include the effect on property values.
The Northern Pass is a proposed 192-mile electrical transmission line which would bring roughly 1000 megawatts of hydroelectric power from Quebec to the regional New England grid. The route, as currently planned, goes from the Quebec border to Deerfield, by way of Franconia Notch.
The project is 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. As currently proposed, it has an estimated construction cost of $1.6 billion.
These costs would be 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 must gain approval from several public entities before construction can proceed.
- Because the project involves crossing an international border, it must receive a presidential permit from the U.S. Department of Energy. The DOE is working 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 must also receive approval from the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee (SEC). The SEC rejected the Northern Pass project in 2018, a decision Eversource plans to challenge through the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
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 will be fronted by Eversource. The company’s transmission agreement with Hydro-Quebec includes 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, will fund the payments through profits made by selling power through the line. The arrangement does not call for any of the costs of the project to fall directly on ratepayers.
How the power will be used
Objectors have raised concerns that power from the Northern Pass will not end up in New Hampshire, instead serving to fulfill energy needs in southern New England. They also point 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 argue that increasing regional capacity will 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 of the Northern Pass 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 will fulfill state, regional and federal clean energy requirements varies.
- Hydroelectricity transmitted through the Northern Pass would qualify to fulfill requirements of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.
- The energy does not meet current requirements for New Hampshire’s clean energy mandate, the Renewable Portfolio Standard.
- Buying power from Hydro-Quebec via the Northern Pass would not require utilities to purchase carbon allowances through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
Obstacles and opposition
Both the DOE and the SEC grant intervenor status to individuals and organizations who demonstrate they have 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 as currently proposed have called for the project to be completely buried. Northern Pass officials have 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 proposed include:
- 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.
PROS & CONS
"The Northern Pass should be 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 is 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 will provide 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 reduce CO2 emissions by around 3.3 million tons per year.
- Northern Pass is expected to contribute around $30 million each year in state, local, and county property taxes, and the Forward NH Fund will give $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 be built along existing power lines, limiting impact on views. The new route also means that the project would be underground throughout the Franconia and White Mountain National Forest areas.
- The project would create an estimated 2,600 jobs during construction, and priority will be given to New Hampshire workers during hiring.
"The Northern Pass should not be permitted to proceed with some (not all) of the lines buried."
- Many landowners and nearby residents say that building the line would destroy the region's natural beauty, and would negatively impact 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 be viable for the Northern Pass.
- The value of the Northern Pass lines will depreciate over time, meaning that its contribution to the tax base will also go down. Meanwhile, studies indicate that properties along high voltage lines can lose 10-30% of value, which could lead to property owners seeking tax abatements. This makes 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 undermine 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 reduces exports or raises rates as a result of that increased local demand, Northern Pass will not be helping when the region most needs the additional capacity.
Makes changes to the Site Evaluation Committee (SEC). In particular, this bill replaces all state officials on the committee with members of the public. This bill also requires the SEC to consider more factors when evaluating applications for wind turbines, such as shadow flicker.
Requires the Site Evaluation Committee to issue a certificate for an energy facility if the committee fails to act within 365 days of acceptance of an application.
Requires a certificate issued by the Site Evaluation Committee to include a provision that the applicant guarantees funding for restoration efforts in the event of environmental damage caused by the facility.
Requires local approval to site high voltage transmission lines in a town or city.
Requires the Site Evaluation Committee to amend rules, specifically some rules requiring visual impact assessments, fire protection plans, and emergency response plans.
Requires an energy facility applying to build in New Hampshire to give notice to any affected municipality, including cities or towns that would be able to see or hear the energy facility in a neighboring municipality.
Requires a certificate for an energy facitility to contain monitoring procedures and "reasonable terms and conditions" that the Site Evaluation Committee deems necessary.
Permits a representative of a municipality affected by a proposed energy facility to be a member of the Site Evaluation Committee for the sole purpose of voting on an application affecting his or her community.
Changes the criteria for evaluating proposed transmission lines to favor buried lines.
Establishes certain "energy infrastructure corridors," for example along I-95, and sets up an application process to build energy infrastructure in these corridors.
Places a moratorium on new transmission line projects for one year.
Requires an economic impact analysis for future energy projects to determine what they will mean for jobs and incomes in local communities.
Requires an energy project to receive public approval anywhere the project's structures are visible.
Places a moratorium on all wind turbine and transmission line projects until the state develops a "comprehensive energy plan."
Requires the Site Evaluation Committee to deny any proposed energy facility with "unreasonable adverse effect on aesthetics, historic sites, air and water quality, the natural environment, and public health and safety," and to consider the views of town governments in any decisions.
Requires applicants to the Site Evaluation Committee to present alternatives, including but not limited to the burial of transmission lines in public rights of way.
Requires the Site Evaluation Committee to give preferential treatment to transmission line plans that bury the lines withing publicly-owned rights of way.
Requires burial of transmission lines for future energy projects if the lines are not need for the "public good." This bill does not define "public good."
Requires burial of transmission lines in all "elective" projects. The Northern Pass is considered an elective project.
Establishes a state energy council to develop an energy strategy.
Requires an evaluation of the Site Evaluation Committee, which is responsible for approving new energy projects like the wind farm in Antrim.
Should NH allow the Northern Pass to proceed with some (not all) of the lines buried?
The Site Evaluation Committee unanimously rejected the Northern Pass in February 2018. Eversource challenged that decision in the state Supreme Court, which heard arguments from both sides on May 15.
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