Northern Pass route unveiled with underground stretch pushing cost to $1.4B
After months of playing defense, PSNH went on the offense Thursday, unveiling a new proposed route for the Northern Pass hydroelectric project in a media blitz that brought out supporters from labor, government and business.
The new route takes the 1,200-megawatt power lines underground through some of the most controversial areas in Canadian border towns at an additional cost of $200 million, with no need to traverse the Connecticut Lake Headwaters Conservation Area.
A 2,300-foot stretch for the Route 3 crossing in Pittsburg and Clarksville, and a 7.5-mile section along existing road corridors in Stewartstown and Clarksville, would be built underground.
The company is also planning to reduce structure heights along portions of the route from a maximum of 135 feet to 85 to 90 feet, according to PSNH President Gary Long, who presented the plan to a packed room of reporters, supporters and interested parties at a company building in Hooksett.
Representatives of organized labor, the president of the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce and the mayor of Franklin took turns at the podium to speak in support of the project.
Opponents have argued since it was first proposed in 2010 that putting the lines underground would be a better solution to preserve the landscape in the North Country. Gov. Maggie Hassan urged PSNH and its parent company Northeast Utilities to consider burying even more.
"As opposed to the first Northern Pass proposal, the newly proposed route appropriately buries transmission lines in some areas," she said. "However, from an initial review of the proposal I continue to believe that project officials must more fully explore options for burying more of the lines."
Sen. Jeff Woodburn, D-Dalton, whose district encompasses the North Country, agreed.
"We are encouraged by some degree of movement," he said. "They are making baby steps in the right direction, but a good faith effort of giant steps needs to be made. Northern Pass hasn't moved far, but they have moved away from busting through the conservation easement of protected state property at the Upper Connecticut headwaters and that burial is not possible."
Several missed deadlines
The first proposed route in 2010 hugged the Vermont border along Route 3 and raised fears that PSNH would try to acquire property by eminent domain. In 2011 the state Legislature approved a bill blocking utilities from taking private land by eminent domain to build power lines, unless those lines are deemed necessary for system reliability.
The 180-mile route would run mostly along existing rights-of-way owned by PSNH, but the focus has been on a 40-mile stretch that would require new rights-of-way through Coos County.
PSNH withdrew its initial route and began work on the new proposal that was presented Thursday, after several self-imposed deadlines were missed in the past year. In describing the new route, Long said the company listened to concerns raised over the years, and did its best to respond while still keeping the project economically viable.
"The state suggested that we had to work with willing landowners on voluntary transactions and we've done that," he said. The company ended up spending millions of dollars on hundreds of acres not shown as needed in the new proposal, including two large Stewartstown tracts that just closed in May — 20 acres near the Clarksville town line, purchased for $4 million from William and Pauline Weir of Colebrook; and another 153 acres that were sold for $4.25 million by Peter and Hilda Weiner.
"We do have properties that may not be used for this project," Long said, "There are other possible uses, such as recreation. But for now we own it, and we are going to continue to own it."
The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests had been monitoring the land purchases carefully, and acquiring easements of its own in an attempt to block the above-ground path. "If you eyeball the new route on the map, about a third of what they purchased is not on the route," said society spokesman Jack Savage.
He said the decision to bury some of the line will trigger pressure to bury more of it, especially along existing PSNH rights of way through the White Mountain National Forest.
"We have to be pleased by the fact that they've at long last discovered the shovel and are contemplating burial of some of the line," Savage said. "When we started this, our objective wasn't to stop Northern Pass, but rather to compel them to look at other alternatives, including burial, and to that extent this represents a fairly significant concession on their part."
Permitting process begins
The $1.2 billion project is now a $1.4 billion project, according to Long. "Underground is very expensive," he said. "That's why you have to do it judiciously." Burying most or all of the 180 miles of power line would increase the cost as much as 10-fold, he said, and render the project economically unviable. The project will now proceed to the permitting process, Long said, which will focus on the Site Evaluation Committee at the state level and Department of Energy in Washington. The Site Evaluation Committee is required to consider local input in making decisions about large-scale energy projects, but can override local opposition.
The rules by which the Site Evaluation Committee operates are currently under review by the state Legislature, and any changes in the law would most likely apply to the Northern Pass application.
Town roads where rights of way would be necessary to bury the lines nearby include Old Country Road in Clarksville and Stewartstown, as well as North Hill Road and Bear Rock Road in Stewartstown.
PSNH's Long emphasized that the cost of constructing and maintaining the line would not be built into electric rates, but would be paid by Hydro-Quebec. He said the company has signed a labor agreement with the state Building and Construction Trades Council to ensure local workers are hired for the project, and a power purchase agreement with Hydro-Quebec to ensure that some of the power is used by PSNH to lower rates for its customers. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said. "We can now get from the Canadian border to the New England grid at Deerfield, where we connect. We've done our work. We need to move forward."