Hadekel: Hydro-Québec’s power plan still sparks outrage in New England

Hadekel: Hydro-Québec’s power plan still sparks outrage in New England
The proposed Northern Pass transmission line through northern and central New Hampshire has generated widespread opposition. Protest signs, such as this one outside of Colebrook, are becoming commonplace.

MONTREAL — South of the border, resistance continues to build toward the proposed $1.4-billion Northern Pass high-voltage transmission line that would carry electricity from Quebec to southern New Hampshire.

New Hampshire’s congressional delegation sent a letter last week to the U.S. Department of Energy seeking details on what alternative routes will be studied for the project, which would ship 1,200 megawatts of Hydro-Québec power to the New England market.

The current route mapped out by Northern Pass would take the transmission line through sections of the White Mountain National Forest. Critics say that would damage an area of scenic beauty and hurt the state’s tourism industry.

The New Hampshire senators and House representatives want a preliminary report on alternatives before the DOE completes an environmental impact study on the Northern Pass route.

“The environmental review has to take into account all reasonable alternatives to the proposal and so that’s been a real focus in New Hampshire,” said Christophe Courchesne, a lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation.

“To a lot of different stakeholders, the current proposal on the table is broadly unacceptable.”

Also opposed to the project in its current form is New Hampshire governor Maggie Hassan, who has stated her opposition in a strongly worded opinion piece published in the Boston Globe.

“The project has made every possible misstep” so far, she wrote, arguing that it “discounts innovative technologies and new approaches in favour of old transmission methods that could harm our state.”

Northern Pass is considered an essential part of Hydro-Québec’s strategy to increase exports of its surplus power to the U.S. Through a complex funding formula, the provincially-owned utility has agreed to finance the U.S. consortium building the line, in return for the right to transmit power for sale for 40 years.

First announced in 2009, it was supposed to be completed this year but it’s run into numerous delays and a firestorm of opposition from landowners and environmental groups.

“No one should accept Northern Pass’s assertion that the only way for New England to access Canadian hydropower is to trade away the majestic beauty of the White Mountains,” wrote Governor Hassan.

Critics are suggesting alternatives such as burying large sections of the transmission line under ground along the Interstate 93 highway corridor. The Northern Pass consortium has claimed that such an approach would be prohibitively expensive.

However, the same technology has been proposed in New York, where the Champlain Hudson Power Express project by U.S. consortium TDI would carry hydro power from Canada, burying more than 300 miles of line, including sections under Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. Hydro-Québec would use the line to sell more power to the New York City area.

TDI has proposed a similar project for Vermont, a $1.2-billion transmission line to bring 1000 megawatts of power from Quebec into the state through the waters of Lake Champlain.

In New Hampshire, “there is a substantial interest in the state, including in the legislature, (for) pursuing an underground alternative on transportation corridors,” Courchesne said. Northern Pass has already agreed to bury an eight-mile section of line in the existing proposal to get around landowner objections.

Apart from the DOE process, numerous other approvals must be obtained, including from the state’s Site Evaluation Committee, which could block the line for esthetic reasons. A wind turbine project in New Hampshire was recently rejected on those grounds.

“The permitting of projects like Northern Pass is a comprehensive and detailed process,” said Lauren Collins, a spokesperson for the Northern Pass consortium, which includes Northeast Utilities, New England’s largest utility.

“We look forward to working with New Hampshire communities and other stakeholders as we move ahead in 2014,” she said.

The broader question is whether New England needs the electricity from Quebec as much as it did when Northern Pass was announced five years ago.

Advocates say the project would diversify New England’s energy supply and bring in clean renewable power. But the price of natural gas, which often sets the price for electricity in the wholesale market, has tumbled and the economic incentive for the project has diminished.

There’s been no change in Hydro-Québec’s commitment to the project and the utility continues to await the approval process in New Hampshire, said a spokesperson.
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