A tale of two transmission lines

What NH can learn from Vermont’s hydro experience

I am not accustomed to praising our neighbors to the west. After all, those trusty Green Mountain Boys who captured Fort Ticonderoga during the Revolutionary War were really part of the New Hampshire militia, and everyone knows we’ve been playing better hockey and making better maple syrup ever since.

But when it comes to negotiating power lines, I give Vermonters the nod. 

Consider the facts. New Hampshire and Vermont stand side by side as pass-through states between Canadian hydropower and the energy-intensive population centers of southern New England. Both are targets of Canadian energy generators and their New England distributors seeking to transmit electricity south. Both are currently considering large-scale 1,000-megawatt transmission lines to accomplish that goal. But the similarities end there.

In Vermont, the 154-mile New England Clean Power Link has been met with widespread approval from the start. Mindful of public antipathy for high-risk, high-voltage towers and the dangers such towers pose to the state’s tourist economy, transmission developer TDI proposed to bury the line in full.

In return for the right to transmit highly-profitable energy along state highways and under Lake Champlain, TDI has agreed to pay over $16 million per year in state and local taxes and make public benefit payments of more than $500 million – $1,900 per Vermont resident – to combat pollution in Lake Champlain and expand solar and wind production incentives.

The plan is on a fast track to approval this year. Fewer than ten public comments were submitted in opposition.

In New Hampshire, the 190-mile Northern Pass project, introduced in 2010, proposes to save money by erecting 2,300 steel towers up to 155 feet high instead of burying the line. The proposed towers have been met with widespread public opposition based on common concerns over degradation of public lands, threats to the state’s tourism-dependent economy, destruction of property values, vulnerability to extreme weather events, and the necessity of eminent domain.

Project developers Hydro Quebec and Eversource have not offered any lease payments or public benefits funds in return for access to public lands; instead, the financial incentive package accompanying the plan would directly benefit the developers by upgrading the Coos Loop. Not surprisingly, the proposal has generated over 5,000 public comments in opposition and has been rejected at town meetings in 31 affected towns.

Although the reasons for the discrepancy between New Hampshire and Vermont are many and complex, one reason that cannot be denied is politics.

In Vermont, transmission developer TDI New England made its first-ever expenditure of $2,500 to lobby state officials in 2015. It has donated nothing to political campaigns and has been discouraged from influence-peddling by robust disclosure requirements, campaign contribution limits, and public funding of elections in Vermont – reforms that are absent in New Hampshire.

In New Hampshire, transmission developers Eversource and Hydro Quebec have followed a decidedly different course. In 2014 alone, Eversource’s New Hampshire affiliates spent over $585,000 lobbying state officials to support their plans and contributed thousands more to fund political campaigns, according to the new Open Democracy Index for New Hampshire. Advocates also spent undisclosed sums marketing Northern Pass to the public under the banner “Jobs for NH,” even though no official determination of energy need has been made.

Granite Staters may disagree on the merits of Northern Pass, but we cannot disagree on this: Decisions affecting the well-being of our state should be made at the public’s behest, free from undue influence by special interests. With respect to Northern Pass, there is a compelling public interest to protect treasured lands and the state’s tourist economy, prevent power outages, and avoid costly subsidies of private industry. To maintain the public trust on this and other matters, New Hampshire’s leaders must demonstrate that their first allegiance is to the people of our state by increasing transparency and accountability of state lobbying and elections. In this respect, I’m afraid to say Vermont has paved the way. 

Daniel Weeks is executive director of the nonpartisan organization Open Democracy in Concord.

Categories: Opinion