Lawmakers ponder North Country power puzzle

Experts at an ad hoc energy stakeholders meeting held Oct. 16 at the State House in Concord generally agreed that construction on several proposed wind farms and wood-fired power plants in Coos County will take three to four years – and perhaps longer if New Hampshire hopes to convince other New England states to cover 90 percent of the costs

The meeting was convened at the request of Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, D-Portsmouth, who chairs the Senate Energy, Environment and Economic Development Committee. She said she wants the Legislature to do all it can to speed up the approval process, but it may not be quick enough to boost a troubled North Country economy.

The challenge is to figure out who should pay for new transmission lines that can carry hundreds of megawatts of additional power. Fuller Clark urged that the planning process be pushed in every arena.

The Public Utilities Commission is hosting a series of related forums in order to develop a report by Dec. 1 that is expected to define the problem and recommend some initial approaches to it. Tom Frantz, director of the electric division of the PUC, said the next meeting of that group is scheduled for early November.

“I don’t see us working out a New Hampshire-only solution by our deadline,” Frantz said. “But we’ll be looking at a number of options.”

Public Service of New Hampshire, which owns a 100-megawatt power line loop through Littleton, Berlin and Lancaster, is working on a feasibility study to boost capacity to 400 or more megawatts. The utility will review several scenarios. The huge unknown is the impact of the extra current along two major trunk lines south of the existing loop in Coos County.

Meanwhile, executives at merchant power suppliers are looking for ways they can voluntarily share the cost of transmission upgrades so all of them advance their projects.

Joshua Levine, project developer for one of those suppliers, Tamarack Energy, said its proposed 75-megawatt, wood-fired plant in Groveton is on hold because of the unresolved power line situation. Tamarack hopes to build the facility north of the center of town near the Lost Nation transmission substation. It would be a $100 million joint venture with XGenesys Development Corp.

“We’re not looking for a free ride,” Levine said. “We want to pay our portion of the transmission improvements. We’re all competitors, but we’re putting a lot of ideas on the table. None of us will win unless we collaborate.”

Harry Smith, a vice president of XGenesys, said the eventual cost to build enough long-term power line capacity is unknown, but he’s heard a ballpark figure of $200 million.

“Whatever the amount is, none of us can afford to do the whole upgrade alone,” Smith added.

Donna Gamache of PSNH said the hard part is guessing which players are serious and have the stamina to wait out the regulatory approval process.

She said what she called “the California model” would may be “the easiest way to absorb the risk.”

In California, a regional electric grid underwrote the cost to transmit new solar and geothermal power to the populated coast in the hopes that future developers would pay their share as they hooked into the lines. If PSNH tackles a project like that without state help, experts fear ratepayers would eat the stranded costs if too few plants came on line.

“We need to find out who really wants to move forward,” Gamache said.

Rep. Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, who sits on the House Capital Budget Committee, said a $200 million state project would use up the whole state capital budget for four years.

“Obviously, bonding would be the only way to do it,” Chandler said.