August 22. 2018 7:42PM

Sides square off on Seacoast transmission-line plan

New Hampshire Union Leader

The Seacoast Reliability Project is a $84 million project designed to upgrade a 13-mile distribution corridor from Madbury to Portsmouth. (COURTESY)

CONCORD — A proposed $84 million transmission-line project that would be buried partly in Little Bay pits a need for more capacity to transmit power through the region versus concerns over disrupting the bay.

Both sides convened Wednesday for a conference to hash out details before the state Site Evaluation Committee starts hearings next week.

The Seacoast Reliability Project — which would pass through Madbury, Durham, Newington and Portsmouth — isn’t nearly as visible or controversial as Northern Pass, which the SEC turned down Feb. 1.

“It’s not in everybody’s face like Northern Pass was,” said Durham resident Vivian Miller, who opposes the Seacoast project. “If people don’t feel it or see it, they’re not inclined to get involved.”

The operator of the New England power grid determined that additional transmission capacity was needed to support the reliable delivery of electric power to the region, according to Eversource.

The Seacoast project includes proposed substation upgrades and a new 115-kilovolt transmission line connecting two existing substations, in Madbury and Portsmouth.

Hearings are scheduled to begin Aug. 29, but several parties want to delay them until they get more information from the state Department of Environmental Services on DES discussions with Eversource after DES already issued final recommendations.

Douglas Patch, a lawyer who represents Durham and the University of New Hampshire, has asked the committee to prohibit such discussions or allow those talks to be open to all the parties.

Whether DES recommendations are modified could “change significantly” the questions asked of witnesses, Patch said.

The committee has scheduled 10 hearing days through Oct. 7 and expects to reach a decision by late November.

With the Seacoast line deemed a “reliability project,” Eversource would be able to recover the costs from electric users throughout New England, meaning New Hampshire consumers would pay about 10 percent of the overall cost.

Durham Town Administrator Todd Selig said the sentiment of townspeople is “generally negative” toward the project with concerns over property values and higher power line poles and structures.

“The town is very focused on the protecting the health of the bay, and we have expended approximately $160,000 to date on expert analysis and legal services representing the interests of Durham as part of this project,” Selig said.

Miller said 14 oyster farmers are concerned the project will affect them.

Northern Pass — a 192-mile transmission line that cut through more than 30 communities that carried a $1.6 billion pricetag — featured about 70 days of hearings. Only two of the seven members sitting on the SEC panel for the Seacoast project also participated in Northern Pass.

Some of the same witnesses criticized by the SEC during Northern Pass deliberations will return to testify on behalf of the 13-mile Seacoast project. Utility spokesman Kaitlyn Woods said those witnesses have testified in other projects that have won SEC approval.

Asked what Eversource learned from Northern Pass that it used in the Seacoast project, Woods said Eversource in 2013 started reaching out to affected communities to discuss the project.

“We received feedback from communities that led to numerous changes prior to the application being filed in April 2016, and we’ve made further modification since then to accommodate community and individual landowner concerns.”

Eversource, like it did with parts of Northern Pass, decided to bury more power lines than first envisioned.

Buried lines will be “most prominently where the project crosses Main Street and other portions of the UNH-Durham campus, and where the project passes the Frink Farm in Newington,” Woods said. “The specific locations or areas were determined as a result of a series of talks with property owners and town and campus officials.”

The Main Street portion would be done starting after May graduation and finishing in August next year. The entire project should be completed in late 2019 presuming the SEC issues a required certificate by the end of this year.

The Seacoast project will be placed within existing rights of way where power lines exist today, more so than what Northern Pass would have done.