With the recent announcements that the Vermont Nuclear Power Station will go off-line next year and that Brayton Point, the region’s large coal plant, is ceasing operations by 2017, the face of New England energy is going through a rapid transformation. As environmentalists call for a greener grid and policymakers search for new sources to meet their states’ energy demands, ISO-New England, the regional grid operator, estimates the area will need an additional 6,000 megawatts of electricity within a decade.
One possible solution? An ambitious plan to transmit 1,200 megawatts of dam-generated electricity from Quebec to New Hampshire.
The Northern Pass, a joint venture between Northeast Utilities, NSTAR, and the public Canadian utility Hydro-Quebec, was proposed in 2008 as a way to bring cheap, clean energy to New England. The project calls for 187 miles of transmission lines to be built from the Canadian border to southern New Hampshire, with the electricity eventually finding its way to the heavily populated metropolitan areas of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Proponents see the Northern Pass as a one-size-fits-all solution, offering reliable, inexpensive energy that’s cleaner than fossil fuels and safer than nuclear power.
But the Northern Pass has run into fierce opposition from many sides, leaving the ultimate fate of the project in doubt. The increasingly rancorous debate over the plan has centered around some of the most vexing problems facing environmental law today: the conflicting demands of conservation and energy production, the true costs of “clean” energy, and the proper role of state and federal regulators in designing the energy regimes of the future.
The most controversial aspect of the proposed project is the feared impact of the Northern Pass on the natural beauty of the White Mountains and surrounding areas. The project’s transmission lines would require rights-of-way hundreds of feet wide to accommodate towers up to 155 feet tall, and would be visible from miles away. Many conservation and recreation groups, such as the Appalachian Mountain Club, have warned that these towers would permanently scar New Hampshire’s wilderness, damaging both local ecosystems and a thriving tourist industry. Critics estimate that at least 40 miles of new transmission corridors would need to be built to run power through the state.
In this atmosphere of increasing indecision over the Northern Pass’s ultimate shape, federal regulators have gone forward with the permitting and approval processes. Because the transmission lines would cross an international border, the utilities must seek a special presidential permit from the Department of Energy. The DoE will consider how the project affects “the public interest,” and must also prepare an Environmental Impact Statement, to be released sometime in 2014 in draft form for public hearing and comment. A decision on the permit is not expected for at least two years. The Northern Pass must also pass regulatory hurdles from an array of other federal and state agencies. These concerns have led to growing calls to bury the lines. While the utilities maintain such a project would be prohibitively expensive, New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan made headlines in September by urging the utilities to explore this option more seriously.
Another point of contention is just how clean the Northern Pass’ hydroelectricity would be. A 2012 report by Synapse Energy Economics suggested that the reservoirs that Hydro-Quebec creates to power its dams release greenhouse gases at a rate equivalent to two-thirds of a typical natural gas power plant’s emissions, and that utilities have typically underestimated the carbon dioxide and methane released by decomposing organic matter trapped under the reservoirs. Groups like the Conservation Law Foundation have pointed out that many New England states may attempt to use Northern Pass hydropower as part of their Renewable Portfolio Standards, relieving them of the obligation to seek equivalent power from other, greener sources. The massive influx of Canadian hydroelectricity would not only be dirtier than previously assumed, critics argue, but would also cripple New England’s budding renewable energy sector by undercutting the competitive advantage of smaller utilities producing wind, solar, or tidal power.
What began, then, as an emblematic solution to a set of typically twenty-first century energy problems has morphed into a hard-fought, intensely political battle over how best to balance environmental protection with energy security and local concerns with regional demands. As policymakers at the state and federal levels attempt to wade through the competing interests and contradictory predictions surrounding the Northern Pass, stakeholders will continue to disagree over whose concerns are paramount. The coming months and years will offer a test case for how — or how not — to build the next generation’s grid.