State unveils action plan to tackle climate change

If you want an indication of how complicated it will be for New Hampshire to cut the pollution that contributes to climate change, flip through the couple hundred pages of the new statewide Action Plan, released March 25 with great fanfare after 15 months of work, and note what isn’t there.

Plenty is there, including 67 recommended actions that range from zoning changes to alternative energy to “feebates” for high-mileage cars, plus a blueprint for putting them into action, and even a relatively upbeat tone considering the vast scope of the issue.

But there’s one thing you won’t see: what to do with the Merrimack Station power plant in Bow.

Although the future of that huge coal-fired plant is the most heated climate-change issue in the state – and one of the most important, since Merrimack Station produces a fifth of the carbon dioxide emitted by human activity in New Hampshire – the blue-ribbon panel sidestepped it.

The power plant is mentioned only deep in Appendix 5, where the panel suggests the state “evaluate the potential to replace existing coal-fired generation” and includes a few paragraphs from a minority of the group that supports a pause in the construction of $450 million scrubbers at Merrimack Station while a study proceeds.

This may partly be a matter of timing, since the scrubber debate only sprang to life last summer when the panel was already six months into its deliberations, but it also reflects the fact that this is a tricky question.

Public Service of New Hampshire, which owns the plant, and many others support the state-required project, which would slash mercury and sulfur emissions and create several hundred jobs for several years. But a group of ratepayers and environmentalists say we shouldn’t spend a half-billion dollars on controls that will do nothing about CO2.

No wonder a group seeking long-term solutions to a very difficult problem didn’t want to highlight it.

Still, the action plan’s official recommendations don’t hesitate to tackle plenty of ideas that have generated controversy in the past and will continue to do so. These include:

• The recommendation that regulated utilities build renewable generation.

PSNH’s request to build or own new power plants has been turned down three times by the state Legislature out of fears that letting New Hampshire’s dominant utility into the alternative-energy sector might squeeze out the little guys.

Utilities argue they’re best suited to turn large-scale alternative power into reality, both because of expertise and because they have access to relatively good lines of finance.

The main problem is that the energy deregulation program of the 1990s centered on separating power generation – that is, owning power plants – from power transmission, or owning the power lines. Allowing PSNH to own new power plants (it still owns some from pre-deregulation days) would collide with that program.

• “Enable importation of Canadian hydro and wind generation.”

Quebec has plans to build a huge hydropower operation in the northern part of the province. Northeast Utilities (PSNH’s parent) and Massachusetts utility NSTAR have asked permission to build a $500 million power line to bring that electricity down through Vermont and New Hampshire, perhaps connecting to the grid near the Merrimack Station plant.

Building new power lines is difficult because of figuring out who will pay for them and getting permission to cross property.

For example, the Legislature has put off for a year its decision on whether to support a smaller line that would help connect Coos County to the southern power grid and thus facilitate wood-burning power plants up north.

Similarly, Maine canceled plans to expand the grid in that state, a move that would have made more wind-power farms tenable.

• The report echoes many urban planners in saying that development should change so that it isn’t necessary for homeowners to drive 15 minutes, and sit through three traffic lights burning up gasoline, in order to buy a gallon of milk.

The action plan supports “model zoning for higher-density, mixed-use development” that could be used by towns. However, as any planning board knows, homes on small lots with small winding streets and traffic circles, located close to lots of stores and businesses – the essence of such “automobile-unfriendly” development – resonate neither with developers nor many homebuyers.

• The action plan includes a new buzzword, “feebate,” to describe financial incentives to get people to buy cars that are fuel efficient and low in greenhouse-gas emissions.

Basically, this would be a combination of a sliding fee charged for gas guzzlers with a sliding rebate for efficient vehicles.

• Getting people out of cars, it says, requires improved bus service within and between cities.

Specifically, the plan calls for complete service for all communities with 20,000 people or more; service connections for all places with 10,000 or more people “and a defined, walkable, mixed use central area of at least 100 acres; and provide connections to smaller satellite communities by extending existing local/intra-regional transit systems serving New Hampshire’s largest cities.

Paying for bus service has always been a struggle, however.

• Change the state Constitution so that gas tax money can be used for public transportation.

This idea has been floated before and failed because of opposition from folks who say it would devastate highway repairs and construction.

• Support a more extensive recycling program.

How would this be paid for? Perhaps, the report suggests, revenue “generated from mechanisms such as a one-cent fee on all bottles sold in the state.”

Such bottle taxes have been proposed before and always failed, largely because of opposition from grocers and beverage companies – most recently, a year ago.

• The action plan devotes an entire section to “wood biomass,” or electricity and heat production from burning trees. This would seem an obvious way for New Hampshire, which is roughly 84 percent forested, to produce energy from sources other than fossil fuels, but even this isn’t without controversy.

The city of Berlin, for example, is in the midst of a fierce debate about whether to turn the closed Fraser Paper mill into a 60-megawatt wood-burning power plant. If the issue isn’t straightforward in the head of logging country, it can’t be easy elsewhere.

• Many of the plan’s suggestions will have to be balanced against each other.

This may nowhere be more evident than in the enthusiasm for wind power, and the recommendation to “protect natural resources” because wild lands contain large amounts of “fixed and sequestered” carbon that would be released by development, as is clear from the current debate about whether to allow up to 33 wind turbines to be built along nine miles of ridgeline in Coos County. It would create the state’s biggest wind farm, but would also disrupt some of the region’s most pristine lands. – THE TELEGRAPH