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NH Has Not Escaped Maine Transmission Line Battle

By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org

Monday marks the two-year anniversary of Eversource’s decision to give up on its plan to construct a $1.6 billion, high voltage, 192-mile transmission line traversing New Hampshire from north to south.

The Connecticut-based utility pulled the plug on the project, which would have been the state’s largest construction project since the Seabrook nuclear power plant, after the state Supreme Court unanimously upheld the Site Evaluation Committee’s 7-0 decision denying the company’s application a week earlier.

The court agreed with SEC the project would unduly impact the orderly development of the region, one of four criteria needed to approve a major utility project.

Northern Pass was first proposed in 2011 and denied by the SEC in 2018, In between and in between opponents and proponents waged a fierce battle costing millions of dollars.

The project was opposed by environmentalists and conservationists, small business owners, residents along the route, local municipal and planning officials and all but two of the host communities.

The project had the support of large businesses and business organizations, unions and economic development officials.

Northern Pass was originally selected to provide Massachusetts with 1,200 megawatts of Hydro-Quebec energy under that state’s clean power act, but when the SEC denied the project, Massachusetts officials turned to a proposed transmission line through Maine.

The line is now under construction having won all the state and federal permits it needs, but faces a voter referendum.

And a nasty fight has developed over a system upgrade needed to connect the hydro power to the New England grid.

The fight is being waged before government and system regulators and before the court of public opinion.

While New Hampshire may have thought its involvement with the transmission project ended two years ago, the stumbling block is a multimillion dollar circuit breaker at the Seabrook nuclear plant, which coincidentally supplies about 1,200 megawatts of electricity to the New England grid.

When the new 1,200 megawatts comes on the grid, about that much will have to be subtracted unless there are major upgrades to the New England grid, which is unlikely any time soon.

The plant, whose construction bankrupted Public Service of New Hampshire along with two other utilities, is now owned by NextEra, a Florida-based utility conglomerate, who claims Avangrid, a Connecticut-based subsidiary of Spanish energy conglomerate Iberdrola that is building the new transmission line, wants to ignore its lost revenues from the down time needed to replace the circuit breaker.

Avangrid will pay for the circuit breaker upgrade, but says the work can be done when the plant shuts down for refueling.

Complaints have been filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the dispute has involved the regional system operator and advocacy groups.

NextEra opposes the Maine transmission project and has provided some “dark money” for organized opposition if you believe Avangrid officials.

That should not be surprising since NextEra was cited as the source for funds for Protect the Granite State, a group actively and financially opposing Northern Pass, as well as working with the New England Power Generators in opposing the project.

The opponent and proponent organizations for the Maine transmission project are nearly identical to those opposing and supporting the Northern Pass transmission line.

Many of the arguments for and against are the same: it would provide clean renewable energy for years, while opponents claim it will not cut carbon emissions, just move them to different locations.

Massachusetts officials say the project is needed to meet its clean energy goals set in law.

But environmentalists argue the project harms undeveloped forests and hurts the push for renewable energy projects around the region.

Like many industries now and in the past, the current entrenched system is not going gently  into that dark night or some might call it the future.

New England knows this scenario all too well. The textile industry was once a foundation of manufacturing along the region’s waterways, but now those buildings are either gone or repurposed and the machines moved long ago as owners chased cheaper labor.

The computer industry was the region’s savior in the 1980s, but also moved manufacturing elsewhere – mostly offshore — along with many military equipment providers, which together caused the housing and banking crash in the early 1990s.

Solar and wind power once were unreliable and expensive, but they are not anymore with cheaper products and large-scale batteries opening the energy market to local governmental entities and individual homeowners.

Wind power projects out in the ocean and mostly out-of-sight have everyone’s attention now and the New England states are falling over each other trying to get a step ahead.

The electric grid of the future will operate in smaller cells and the sources of power will also be more local and not require burning fossil fuels or nuclear generation to light a neighborhood. 

The change is inevitable over time both to address climate change and due to the finite amount of fossil fuels in the ground.

But creating a different system will have a devastating impact on the companies currently generating the power, whether it is from fossil fuels, atoms or wood, whose plants have all but disappeared.

The situation is a lot like newspapers today, many hang on as long as possible to the old model while advertising revenue continues to move elsewhere and people expect to receive their news for free.

The cost of newsprint continues in its upward spiral while the circulation lags.

So as more and more people put solar panels on their roofs, or small wind turbines in their backyard, less and less electricity generated by fossil fuel and nuclear power will be needed.

In New Hampshire we are behind most of our neighbors in the distributed energy movement.

Massachusetts’s goal is no emissions from power generation by 2050, but that may be nearly impossible to achieve and some “old technology” will be needed from time to time.

The jury is still out on how clean hydro energy is with its destruction of habitat and carbon release from decaying trees in flooded areas behind dams.

But most would agree it is less of a carbon footprint than burning coal, oil or natural gas.

Other technology to generate electricity from ocean currents and less damaging damming is available today, but not to the extent of Hydro-Quebec’s massive networks.

The irony of the pitched battle between NextEra and Avangrid is both companies are trying to preserve what will be old infrastructure in the near future.

The future is in small, local projects and aggregation so localities may work together to garner better wholesale prices.

And Maine, like New Hampshire, has to decide if it wants to be an extension cord for Massachusetts’ appetite for clean energy, knowing it is only a short-term fix to a much more encompassing problem that needs a more regional approach with local options.

The battle between NextEra and Avangrid is not about to end anytime soon while the hydro power remains locked in Canada with no transmission route to the Bay State.

Eventually enough money will be put on the table and the power will flow because both sides are fighting a greater battle with what is to come.

Garry Rayno may be reached at [email protected]

Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.