By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
By all accounts, the rejection of the Northern Pass energy project was a major surprise. The plan to deliver 1.09 gigawatts of hydropower from Quebec through New Hampshire to southern New England via high-voltage transmission lines was all but assured by the developer and energy officials in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources was counting on the electricity for its Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2020.
A Massachusetts Clean Energy power-purchase contract was recently awarded to Eversource and Hydro-Quebec for hydro electricity to help meet the state's goal of 1,200 megawatt of new land-based power by 2022. Eversource intended to start construction in April and complete the project by 2020.
On Feb. 1, however, the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee rejected the proposal, 7-0. The board worried that the 192-mile power-line system, including hulking towers, would disrupt main streets and harm tourism, particularly in the scenic northern portion of the state that is home to the White Mountain National Forest and Franconia Notch.
Eversource made concessions by promising to bury 52 miles of the route and set aside 5,000 acres of preservation and recreation land. But it wasn't enough. The decision was celebrated by small towns and environmental groups that vigorously opposed the project since it was announced in 2010. Thousands of New Hampshire residents submitted comments objecting to the project.
Eversource said it was “shocked and outraged” by the vote and plans to appeal the decision in New Hampshire Supreme Court. It has 30 days to appeal the vote by the site evaluation committee.
“The process failed to comply with New Hampshire law and did not reflect the substantial evidence on the record,” Eversource said in a prepared statement.
The utility referred to the economic benefits of the $1.6 billion project, including $30 million in annual tax revenue, as well as the renewable-energy goals it would be fulfilling. The process, Eversource said, “is broken and this decision sends a chilling message to any energy project contemplating development in the Granite State.”
Eversource had invested some $250 million in the project and received approval from the U.S. Department of Energy for a portion of the power lines last November, but still requires a permit from Quebec.
In Massachusetts, the office of the attorney general and the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) said they would reevaluate the energy procurement decision, while remaining committed to acquiring imported hydropower.
Peter Lorenz, EEA communications director, said a new proposal for renewable energy would be considered if existing contracts can't meet the terms of the agreement.
Rhode Island has also shown interest in imported hydropower. Former Gov. Lincoln Chafee advocated for a deal with Hydro-Quebec after touring the company. In recent years the state discussed buying a portion of Quebec hydropower in a deal with Massachusetts but an agreement was never reached.
On Feb. 5, Gov. Gina Raimondo announced a goal of acquiring 400 megawatts of utility-scale renewable energy from the Northeast, but only small-scale hydro projects qualify for the program.