Federal rules hinder North Country power-line upgrades

A newly released state Public Utilities Commission report says that, under current federal regulations, New Hampshire can expect no fiscal help from the rest of New England to upgrade power lines in Coos County.

The power lines would be required to transmit the supply created by several proposed renewable energy power plants in the region.

According to the report, it would take a change in Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rules to make Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and the rest of the ISO-New England power grid share the cost to beef up the closed transmission loop that runs through Littleton, Berlin and Whitefield. Any change in policy at that level would take years to effect, if it is even possible.

The PUC said the first project in the approval queue, Noble Energy’s 100-megawatt wind farm in the far northern part of the state, would require about $10 million or more of work to tighten the existing power lines. Otherwise, the heat of the added current would make the wires lengthen and sag too low.

That lead project would block all the ones behind it, including plans for three wood-fired power plants totaling 138 megawatts.

State officials held a series of stakeholder meetings over the summer and fall hoping to reach a quick consensus on sharing the cost of upgrades to benefit all of them. That dollar figure could range from $170 million to $210 million to carry up to 500 megawatts of power, the report said — more than five times existing capacity.

Peter Riviere, executive director of Coos County Development Corp., said the high price tag deals yet another blow to an economy reeling from the loss of two paper mills, and their 900 jobs, in less than two years.

“The first Noble Energy project could go on line by late 2009,” Riviere said. “Their second project, a 146-megawatt wind farm, would be dead. It could take four or five years just to solve the power line problem.”

Gov. John Lynch has pledged to help hundreds of displaced North Country workers, but he opposes asking New Hampshire taxpayers or electric ratepayers to foot the whole cost of new power lines.

Earlier this fall, state Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, D-Portsmouth, convened an ad hoc group of energy stakeholders to see what the Legislature could do to speed up construction of those renewable power plants. The PUC report advises bringing those players together on a regular basis.

A proposed 600-megawatt gas-fired power project somewhere in Rockingham County ranks behind most of the renewable energy plans. The regulatory and transmission tie-up has to ease before some lucky, or unlucky, town — depending on one’s perspective — gets those megawatts and the tax base they would bring.

Rep. Naida Kaen, D-Lee, presides over energy and environmental policymaking in the House. She said the system to bring power on line is out of date. It still assumes a new plant will be the size of Con Edison’s 525-megawatt Newington plant or the 1,161-megawatt Seabrook nuclear power plant, which can build their own transmission lines in the heart of the electric grid to begin with.

“Today that’s inappropriate,” Kaen said. “We want distributed generation from a lot of small plants. But the first one can’t upgrade the lines for the free riders coming later. So the projects are all in gridlock.”

Donna Gamache lobbies for Public Service of New Hampshire, which owns the power lines at issue. She said the hard part is guessing which would-be players up north are serious and have the stamina to wait out the regulatory approval process.

She pointed to a recent ruling by FERC that authorized the California electric grid to underwrite the cost of bringing new solar and geothermal power to the populous coast. The gamble is that private developers will repay the state in full as they hook into the lines.

Using “the California model would be the easiest way to absorb the risk,” she said. “We need to find out who really wants to move forward.”

If PSNH has to tackle a project like that alone, Fuller Clark said, she’s worried ratepayers might be forced to eat some stranded costs and too few plants might come on line. Kaen said she thinks other New England states should help build those power lines.

“We could do it faster alone, but we’re not the only ones who benefit from more electricity and clean air,” she said. “The costs should be spread across the grid, even if that takes longer.”

Attorney Doug Patch lobbies for Noble and said his client is willing to pay its share along with everyone else.

“But we prefer a regional socialization of the costs,” he said.

Fuller Clark pointed to an underlying catch-22 in national policy. The country needs carbon-neutral, renewable energy to prevent climate change and free the economy from foreign oil. But most of the future renewable plants will occupy remote mountain ridges, former paper mill towns or wind lines off the coast with weak infrastructure into the grid.