Northern Pass Hearings Begin

by David Brooks, Concord Monitor

Nine years after planning began, the most-discussed electricity transmission project in New Hampshire history will get its day in court Thursday, as weeks of hearings begin at the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee.

The committee must sign off on the proposed 192-mile, $1.6 billion line that Eversource and Hydro-Quebec want to build and own. It would carry 1,000 megawatts of electricity from massive hydropower dams on Quebec’s James Bay that would be sold into the New England power market.

William Quinlan, president of Eversource’s New Hampshire operations, is slated to be the first witness to take the stand in this courtroom-like proceeding, which starts 9 a.m. Thursday in the committee offices at 49 Donovan St. in Concord.

He is slated to be the first of seven witnesses from Eversource, including company officials dealing with the power grid, transmission lines and business dealings, and a scientist who specializes in the health effects of electromagnetic fields.

Many have already testified in prior technical sessions, but the hearings will allow cross-examination by representatives of various groups that oppose the project, as well as testimony by opponents.

The hearings could run for a few months.

Eversource officials have been peddling the need for Northern Pass since the idea was first floated in 2008, when the company was still PSNH. Opponents have been pushing back for almost as long.

Eversource points to New England’s increasing dependence on natural gas to create our electricity – on Tuesday morning, for example, 69 percent of the power in the six-state region came from plants that burned natural gas – as a reason to develop alternative power sources.

Opponents have most loudly objected to the visual impact of the proposal. Northern Pass wants to cut 32 miles of new corridors over mostly undeveloped land in Northern New Hampshire and to expand some 130 miles of existing power corridors to fit 85-foot-tall towers carrying high-voltage DC power. About 60 miles of the line would be buried, a figure that has been the subject of considerable debate. Northern Pass officials have said it would be prohibitively expensive to bury more, as opponents want.

There is also debate about the effect the line would have on electricity rates – Northern Pass claims it would save consumers tens of millions of dollars by adding relatively inexpensive hydropower to New England’s power mix – as well as a many related issues.

In the meantime, other projects similar to Northern Pass have cropped up to carry HydroQuebec electricity into the New England market.

Notable is the New England Clean Power Link, which has received final approval to carry about 1,000 megawatts into Vermont. Its relatively speedy trip through the regulatory maze was hastened by the fact that for most of its route the power line will be placed at the bottom of Lake Champlain, where nobody can see it.

Late last month, National Grid – an Eversource competitor – joined the fray with its proposal to build the Granite State Power Link. This line would also carry about 1,000 megawatts of Quebec power into New Hampshire but would mostly use National Grid’s existing AC power lines, apparently avoiding most of the outcry that has dogged Northern Pass.

If all three proposals go forward, they could provide some 3,000 megawatts of “dispatchable” electricity, meaning power that can be turned on and off as needed to meet the region’s varying appetite during the year. That’s more than 10 percent of New England’s total need – our peak summertime power usage is about 29,000 megawatts – which leads some to question if all these plans are overkill.

With the future questionable about hundreds or thousands of megawatts’ worth of nuclear and coal-fired power plants in New England, that question is hard to answer.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)