Lessons from 4 Years of Northern Pass Failures
How a big power line project misjudged New Hampshire and hijacked New England’s energy progress
by Christophe Courchesne, Senior Attorney, Conservation Law Foundation
Four years ago this month, officials from Public Service Company of New Hampshire held a press event announcing the Northern Pass transmission project. I wasn't there, but I’m reasonably sure that that among the pronouncements were sunny words like “once-in-a-lifetime,” “win-win,” “renewable competitively priced low carbon power,” and “significant property tax benefit.”
Most of the focus was on the siting of a huge converter station in Franklin, a small, economically challenged city where the announcement was staged and which would see its tax base nearly double after the project. At the time, the thought was 180 miles of new transmission towers between Pittsburg and Deerfield (almost the full length of the state) would be under construction by 2013 and carrying huge quantities of energy, generated by Québec’s vast system of hydropower dams, to New England’s electric grid by 2015. Then-Governor John Lynch attended to offer a preliminary endorsement, a decision I’m sure he came to regret.
And so opened the first chapter of this proposed power line’s long and unfinished saga. As the fall of 2010 turned to winter, the more local people learned about the project, the less they liked. Before long, New Hampshire citizens in the communities along the project route had organized themselves into one of the most potent grassroots uprisings in Granite State history.
What went wrong for Northern Pass, and what should we learn from it?
I arrived at Conservation Law Foundation in February 2011 and was immediately assigned the role of CLF’s lead advocate scrutinizing Northern Pass. The federal permitting process for the project was off to a bad start, and handmade orange signs were already becoming ubiquitous up and down the proposed route. Within a month of my start date, I was delivering remarks at the first in a series of public hearings on the project, where the conclusion was inescapable—the ordinary citizens who didn't have a direct financial stake in the project didn't want it and didn't think it was a good idea. CLF and the rest of the New Hampshire environmental community had deep concerns about the project, too—about the impacts on the state’s natural resources and protected lands like the White Mountain National Forest, the dubious environmental and climate bona fides of power from large dams, the effects on New England’s own renewable energy sources, and the need for a sound regional plan before embarking on new imports of this scale.
I won’t recount everything that happened next, but the story has a few dominant themes, which I’ve written about many times over the last four years:
- Massive, well-organized, and diverse citizen opposition. Hundreds of people packed each public hearing on the project, and they came from across the political spectrum and focused on a wide range of problems with the project, including its potential use of eminent domain, its unwillingness to bury the lines (despite projects in neighboring states that would), and its divisive and secretive efforts to buy up land for its revised route. Farmers, local businesspeople, retirees, second-home owners, realtors, lawyers, doctors, homemakers, you name it, united around a deep feeling that the project would unnecessarily harm part of what makes their corners of New Hampshire special, without significant offsetting benefit. Many of these people have now volunteered a big chunk of their lives to fighting the project, and the vast majority are focused not just on the views from their property, but on their sense of place, their moral understanding of right and wrong, and their commitment to their communities, the vast majority of which have taken votes against the project.
- “It’s my way (and definitely not the highway).” Northern Pass has to date refused serious consideration of meaningfully different alternatives — especially the much-discussed, doable (and nearly legislated) burial of the line in state transportation corridors or the use of the imported power as a means to retire PSNH’s inefficient and uneconomic fossil fuel power plants, which run infrequently and are still collectively New Hampshire’s biggest source of carbon pollution. Throughout, Northern Pass has been steadfastly opposed to locating the new line anywhere but PSNH’s existing transmission line corridor, where four or five-story wooden poles would be replaced with two new sets of steel pylons, some reaching three times the height of existing poles. The one revision to the project (unveiled with a “we've listened” media push in 2013) was about relocating new corridors away from (or in the case of several short segments to be buried in local roads, between) unwilling landowners’ property, and the new route has been no more popular than the original.
- A failing financial model that, despite claimed freedom from subsidy, actively seeks handouts from electric customers. From the beginning, Northern Pass has touted its financial structure, which relies on Hydro-Québec to foot the full bill for the project on the expectation that it will make back its investment on energy sales to New England over the next few decades. And the supposed benefit of getting electricity from Canada is that it would come at low price, below both market electric prices and the renewable projects that could be developed in New England. But these selling points stopped being credible years ago: the world that Hydro-Québec needs to cover its costs — high New England electric prices year-round — has disappeared, and the times of the year prone to price spikes now are the very times that Hydro-Québec may not have enough power to sell. And so time and time again, the developers have gone behind the scenes with policymakers and lobbied hard for subsidies—in the Connecticut and Massachusetts legislatures and in the Governors’ recent energy infrastructure discussions.
- A U.S. Department of Energy permitting process that hasn’t been up to the job. The federal government’s energy agency is charged with determining whether Northern Pass should get a permit to build across the international border. The agency is supposed to run an impartial, rigorous, and open process, free of conflicts of interest. Unfortunately, the agency’s first move was to hire Northern Pass’s own consultant to conduct the environmental review of the project; after CLF and others cried foul, the first consultant withdrew and was replaced with a team of consultants that, internal government documents later showed, were hand-picked by Northern Pass. And now there are signs that the environmental review will be much narrower than federal law requires. This is despite the concerted efforts of the New Hampshire environmental community and members of New Hampshire’s Congressional delegation, who rallied to the cause of ensuring a fair and thorough process.
- A deceptive, expensive marketing and lobbying effort straight from the stereotypical energy conglomerate playbook. Relying on disingenuous ads and phony talking points, the project developers have invested vast sums in trying to sell the project to the public and policymakers in New Hampshire and in southern New England. The key tactics: overstate the benefits (using blatantly false information about hydropower’s carbon pollution) and understate the costs (if acknowledging them at all). Recently, Northern Pass has taken to running a news-clipping service on its blog, taking every energy news story in New England and contorting them into a narrative about the need for Northern Pass to help solve the region’s energy “crisis.” By any fair measure, this campaign hasn't generated much in the way of new local support.
Looking back, I’m more than a little dumbfounded. Why did the smart, well-compensated people at Northeast Utilities, PSNH, and Hydro-Québec and their army of consultants and lawyers get virtually everything wrong? Why did they react so poorly when events didn't go their way? Why would they plow ahead with scorched earth tactics and expensive media campaigns to promote a project so disliked in the communities where it would be built?
According to a federal filing, by the end of 2014 the project will have spent an eye-popping $110 million on land, consultants, media, and legal counsel (10% of the project’s original cost estimate). While the developers have much to gain from their original and current proposals, they will reap no rewards if the project loses out to competitors or is never constructed.
And competitors have emerged. Just days ago, the Department of Energy marked the closing of a public comment period for a 150-mile buried and underwater transmission line proposal in Vermont, serving much the same purpose as Northern Pass and raising some of the same questions about power sources, economics, and local benefit. In all, 11 comments were filed (including two from CLF focusing on Lake Champlain impacts and the issues the project shares with Northern Pass). By contrast, the Department of Energy received almost 8,000 public comments during the same phase of the Northern Pass environmental review.
The Vermont project developer is trying to replicate its buried and underwater power line project in New York, which was proposed, like Northern Pass, four years ago. It would run from Canada to New York City buried under Lake Champlain and the Hudson River and in railroad beds and roads. Unlike Northern Pass, the New York project now has virtually all necessary federal and state approvals.
Four years is a long time—a high school or college education, an early childhood from the hospital to pre-kindergarten, or America’s involvement in the second world war. It’s too long for New Hampshire’s — and a good portion of New England’s — energy discussions to be dominated by one poorly conceived project.
The blame for this protracted timeline lies at the feet of the project developers, who failed to anticipate and address community concerns, employed strong-arm tactics that badly backfired, and spent two years assembling a barely changed route that was just as unpopular as the project’s first try.
Worse, the project has tried to seize the mantle of the region’s most cost-effective and potent solution to climate change, an honorific it absolutely does not deserve. There is no question that — by deliberately ignoring the greenhouse gases that rise from the flooded landscapes behind big hydropower dams in northern Québec to say nothing of dams’ other ecological tolls— the project has significantly overestimated its environmental benefits. Its self-declared accolades ring especially hollow given the project’s provenance as an initiative of New Hampshire’s single largest greenhouse gas polluter.
Somehow, my home state of Massachusetts and its environmentally progressive Governor made Northern Pass a centerpiece of the state’s plan to reduce carbon pollution by 2020—a bizarre move in that not a single Northern Pass tower would be located there. While the plan no longer references Northern Pass by name, it still relies on the erroneous pollution reduction numbers that Northern Pass consultants calculated for the project four years ago. And over the last year, at the urging of mostly Massachusetts and Connecticut, big new imports of hydropower have been one half of the region’s hottest energy issue—whether to subsidize billions in new gas pipeline and electric transmission lines through a deal, now on hold, that could provide Northern Pass the financial boost it has been seeking.
In its dominance of the energy discussion, Northern Pass has pulled precious attention away from efforts and policies — like homegrown renewable energy and energy efficiency — that demonstrably build thriving, local energy economies and deliver real, verifiable reductions in pollution. As much as it has been a core concern of my advocacy at CLF, Northern Pass has been an enormous distraction for New Hampshire and New England.
Unfortunately, what has happened so far may be only the first chapters of the project’s story. All indications suggest that the project intends to continue with the permitting process, perhaps with some modifications to address “sensitive” areas, with a massive state review of the project to kick off next year.
However the conclusion of Northern Pass’s story reads, the error I see running through the last four years is what could be called “the big utility project fallacy.” The logic animating Northern Pass—besides the all-important gold at the end of the rainbow for Northeast Utilities—is that a big investment that’s good for a big utility company must by definition be good for the public too. You can see this, plain as day, in what PSNH President Gary Long, Northern Pass’s most visible public advocate before his untimely death this summer, told Yankee Magazine:
I’ve never seen anything this good in my 35 years at PSNH. If this doesn't happen, it’s ‘shame on New Hampshire.’
This level of conviction dates to the New Deal era, when utilities were electrifying the countryside and helping to lift rural America out of poverty. With Wall Street pressure on big utilities to maximize profit and corporate emphasis on obscene executive compensation, the mindset has long since soured. But the same thinking can be seen in PSNH’s recent history as well, whether in an over-budget nuclear power plant that took two decades to build or a $422 million upgrade to a 50 year-old coal plant that didn't make economic sense for customers at the time and makes much less now.
To big utilities like PSNH, their big projects should, ipso facto, be the public’s most important priorities. Of course, it’s not only big utilities that think this way—we live in a time when an entire political party has adopted Transcanada’s Keystone XL pipeline project as a patriotic imperative.
The days of the “big utility project fallacy” are numbered, in so many ways—by competition in restructured electric markets, by the increasing and sustained engagement of Internet-connected citizens in energy policy and siting, and most importantly by the ongoing transformation of our energy system toward greater efficiency, solar, wind, and new technologies that will reduce peak energy use. The climate crisis, in particular, demands a very different electric grid than the one that companies like Northeast Utilities’ subsidiaries built and that colors their view of the world.
For the biggest projects to navigate these waters, they need, as with Cape Wind, a compelling public policy case, a strong package of public benefits, the openness to adapt to changing circumstances and public feedback, and substantial community and stakeholder acceptance.
The irony here is that it would not have been (and still isn’t) impossible for Northern Pass, reconfigured and reimagined, to fit this mold.
A buried line in interstate highways would have a much easier time achieving community acceptance. If sourced directly from Hydro-Québec, the power would be, while not deep green, cleaner than the output of PSNH’s coal plants and could be conditioned to replace it. The developers could likewise commit that the power would come from no or very low carbon sources—like wind and run-of-the-river hydropower in Canada. With the right arrangement, the power could help balance variable wind resources in calm hours. The developers could commit to a transparent long-term price and a delivery guarantee for certain amounts of power at times when New England needs it. The investment in new transmission lines could be balanced with a major investment in energy efficiency and New Hampshire-based renewable energy. The land assembled by PSNH for its overhead towers could be dedicated to conservation, agriculture, or renewable energy projects.
So far, Northern Pass has not demonstrated this degree of imagination or humility. And maybe the project can, with all its access to money, continue along its current course and win the right to plant its 20th century towers across New Hampshire, the lessons of the project’s rocky beginnings be damned.
So this is where we are four years after the project was announced in Franklin: Northern Pass is not much closer to gaining federal or state approval, large swathes of New Hampshire despise the project, and the developers appear wedded to their failed strategy and headed toward a costly and all-consuming permitting Armageddon. It’s a shame, for all of us.
Over the long Columbus Day weekend, my family spent a lovely three days enjoying the area just north of Franconia Notch—a hike up Cannon Mountain on the Kinsman Ridge trail, pancakes at Polly’s Pancakes in Sugar Hill, and a stroll at the Rocks Estate in Bethlehem. Several of the photos in this essay were taken on this trip. It was a little past peak foliage but still postcard perfect, with a chill in the air and the beeches ablaze with yellow.
If you've ever visited, you know this part of the world is a very special place, which may explain why we had a three-hour wait for pancakes at Polly’s and were joined at the Cannon summit tower by hundreds of tramway riders from many states, ethnicities, and walks of life.
On our walk at the Rocks, we crossed the existing power line corridor where Northern Pass would be built. From the summit of Cannon, we looked west and saw roughly where this same corridor enters the White Mountain National Forest. A weekend in this place is a compelling reminder that a project like Northern Pass would mean big changes—several years of disruptive construction and many decades of living with a landscape that looks markedly different. For a region and a state that has painstakingly preserved and treasures its breathtaking beauty, Northern Pass would carry a real cost.
My family are no strangers to living in the shadow of energy infrastructure. We make our home in a quiet town in southeastern New Hampshire. A high-voltage power line, with much higher towers than those at the Rocks, is a next door neighbor. We live within the Seabrook evacuation zone and get a calendar every year with instructions on obtaining iodine tablets for use in case of nuclear accident. On my runs, I often cross the Algonquin interstate natural gas pipeline. It’s nothing like living near a coal plant or liquefied natural gas terminal, but all this infrastructure is a silent (or not so silent, when the sirens echo across town during Seabrook emergency drills) presence in our lives. And, on some level, this is all fair—we power our home with electricity from natural gas and nuclear power plants, which is carried far and wide by transmission lines.
Over the past few years, there has been a lot of discussion within regional energy circles that reduces the tortured story of Northern Pass into a lament about how hard it is to build new infrastructure, how “Not in My Backyard” reactions to projects are so myopic and parochial, and how we shouldn't let the “perfect” be the enemy of the “good.” The same conversation is now rapidly shifting to blame our climbing winter electric prices on those saying “no.” Fighting as hard as we do to push big infrastructure projects in better directions, my organization often plays a scapegoat for this exasperation. I have been asked more than a few times, “If not Northern Pass, then what?”
A lot of this talk floats high above the unfortunate history of Northern Pass, giving in to a temptation to caricature and castigate. It’s not particularly interested in what the project would mean to the communities along the route, in real proof of the project’s supposed benefits, or in the many alternatives that the big utility companies haven’t chosen. It’s colored by perceptions of different fights to keep infrastructure out of other places. Knowing what I’ve recounted here, I don’t find this frustration persuasive. Northern Pass’s troubles aren’t the product of sentimental attachment to pretty views on the part of intractable locals or impractical environmental types.
Big decisions shaping our energy future should make sense for New England’s people, its undeniably special places, its local and regional economies, and the climate—not just big energy companies. And I’m convinced we can do much better than the proposal we know today as Northern Pass, especially if we can learn the lessons of the last four years.
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Christophe Courchesne is a senior attorney for Conservation Law Foundation.