Northern Pass and what's good for N.H.

Why does the project insist on dismissing proposed burial of transmission lines?

A few months ago, the Northern Pass Transmission Project reported to the investment community that a new route would be revealed this fall. This came after almost two years of controversy and citizen protests that grew up around the project’s original plan to run electric transmission lines for 180 miles from Canada to Deerfield, N.H., first announced in October 2010. This route includes 10 miles in the national forest, for which a complex special use permit is required.

Instead of an alternative route, however, the project came out with a new design for the height of the towers: the ones to be built on forestland along existing power lines will now be 85 feet high instead of 100 to 135 feet.

This announcement said two things to me: one is that the Northern Pass blinked; and the project and its partners still aren’t listening to the people and the communities most impacted by the proposed 140-mile line.

If just the towers sited in the middle of the woods will be shortened to be less intrusive, what about the towers that people live next to and will see every day?

Meanwhile, the legislative commission studying energy corridors within transportation rights of way has diligently looked at the impacts of transmission lines above and below ground. The members heard that the technology for undergrounding transmission lines has been developing for over 30 years now. It is a practice that Maine, other U.S. states and countries from Australia to Europe have explored and accepted. And it is a proven method used in our national parks and in other areas “with sensitive aesthetics.”

The state Department of Transportation told the commission that there are four potential highway corridors for burying lines in our state: I-93, I-95, Route 101 and I-89.

But the commission’s first draft report, which promoted undergrounding, has met with heavy resistance from Northern Pass and its paid lobbyists, who argue that the recommendation to bury transmission lines is “designed to attack” the project and its “economic foundation.”

Spokesmen for Northern Pass say that it would be just too expensive to bury the lines. Did anyone really think they would say anything different than this?

Undergrounding transmission lines is not as burdensome as Northern Pass and its partners have portrayed it. When I wrote on this subject a year ago, I noted that Hydro-Quebec's own literature cites benefits of burying lines.

As Hydro-Quebec website’s “Better Living” page says, “Imagine your backyard, your street, your entire neighborhood without utility poles or overhead lines …”

Underground lines are less affected by weather – another reason this is important for states like Maine and New Hampshire to consider. The power outages caused by Superstorm Sandy, 2011’s Hurricane Irene and the “Snowtober” event were massive, knocking out power for millions of customers. The Edison Electric Institute has found that customers served through overhead lines see 14 times more outages than customers with underground lines.

Undergrounding lines will be more expensive than overhead lines, but it can also be an income source for the state. In legislation passed in 2010, Maine established a process for creating energy corridors and has now designated the Interstate 95 median for an underground corridor to deliver power to the New England grid. There are no hard numbers, but some estimates are that these leased rights of way could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars for the state.

Northeast Utilities, a primary partner in Northern Pass, has also buried lines, including 24 miles of a densely populated area between Middletown and Norwalk, Conn. — a fact that was reported to the energy corridors study commission.

But NU has not seriously looked at studying this in New Hampshire, and now says the very suggestion of it undermines the project’s “economic foundation.”

I’m glad the energy corridors study commission has taken this issue seriously and hope that the pushback from Northern Pass doesn’t dilute its final report and recommendations. What’s good enough for Hydro-Quebec customers in Canada and NU customers in Connecticut should be good enough for New Hampshire.

Joe Drinon lives in Chichester.

Categories: Opinion