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February 21. 2013 7:18PM

Utility company anticipates higher cost, later date for Northern Pass completion

In a wide-ranging teleconference with stock analysts and the media, executives from Northeast Utilities said the Northern Pass hydroelectric project is going to cost more and take longer to build than expected, but they held fast to their position that a route through northern New Hampshire will soon be announced and the project will be approved.

The new cost estimate is up to $1.2 billion from $1.1 billion, and the targeted completion date has been moved from early 2017 to mid-2017. At one point, NU predicted that the project would be completed by 2016.

NU executives also dismissed land purchases or easements obtained by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests to block the project, saying they were never interested in those parcels anyway.

The comments came from Leon J. Olivier, chief operating officer and executive vice president for Northeast Utilities, in the company's regularly scheduled fourth quarter earnings call Wednesday.

"The revised cost estimate is the result of having a more defined design," he said. "This estimate will of course be continually refined as we move through the siting process."

In a similar conference call in July, Olivier predicted that "the new route will be filed with the U.S. Department of Energy in the fourth quarter of (2012). That should support the start of construction in the second half of 2014, and completion by the end of 2016. However, should the process of securing the property continue beyond the end of this quarter, the project completion would move to early 2017."

In his comments Wednesday, Olivier said, "We believe (Northern Pass) will be completed between the end of 2016 and mid-2017."

Paul Patterson, an analyst with Glenrock Associates, pressed Olivier on whether the company had all the required rights of way, prompting Olivier to acknowledge for the first time that the company may seek access to public rights of way along or across state highways.

"We are very confident that we have a route," said Olivier. "We have spent really the last two years acquiring rights of way from private property landowners. We have a number of options around intersections, over public rights of way, so we are very confident we have a route."

The state highway commissioner was asked by an Executive Council member at a Feb. 6 council meeting about inquiries from Northern Pass regarding rights of way along or across Route 3 near the Vermont border.

"It's coming; I know it's coming," said Department of Transportation Commissioner Christopher Clement, in response to a question from District 1 Councilor Ray Burton. "But as of today, we do not."

When Patterson asked about the land purchases or rights of way obtained by the forest society, Olivier said, "the land which they have acquired, for the most part, is land which we never have sought to purchase to begin with. So we are not at all concerned with their claims."

Those comments are inconsistent with the claims of landowners who say they were approached by Northern Pass, but decided to work with the forest society instead, according to society spokesman Jack Savage.

"Multiple landowners with whom we've worked to protect land from Northern Pass report having received offers from Northern Pass," he said. "It's not surprising to learn that at Northeast Utilities the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. Of course it's also common for anyone who loses out on something to then claim they never wanted it in the first place. I'm guessing that when Northern Pass finally packs up and moves on, they will say that they never really wanted to build a transmission line in the first place."

dsolomon@unionleader.com



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