DURHAM — After three years of posturing by opponents and supporters of the Northern Pass, the most recent poll on the topic shows the state is still evenly divided.
"Attitudes remain mixed," according to the most recent Granite State Poll, commissioned by WMUR and conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
And even with all the media coverage of the Northern Pass and the New England energy crisis, more than a quarter of those surveyed knew nothing of the proposal to bring hydroelectric power from Quebec into the New England grid via New Hampshire.
Only 17 percent said they are very familiar with Northern Pass, while 19 percent are "not very familiar" and 28 percent are "not familiar at all."
The "not familiar at all" number is the highest it has been since the UNH Survey Center began to poll on the topic in April 2011, when 35 percent said they knew little or nothing about the project.
The percent of people who say they are very familiar with the project has ranged from just below 10 percent in April 2011 to 17 percent in the most recent survey. There is a high awareness of the project in the North Country, where a new right-of-way would have to be cut through undeveloped forestland.
"Up in the North Country, obviously they're going to be more concerned about it, but there's just not that many people who live in the North Country," said Andy Smith, director of the nonpartisan Survey Center.
The survey center has now conducted six polls on the project.
"Support and opposition to the Northern Pass has remained remarkably stable over the past three years," the survey reports. "The strongest support comes from the Manchester area (53 percent support), while the strongest opposition comes from North Country residents (74 percent oppose)."
Of the 510 randomly selected individuals responding to the most recent poll, 41 percent of those who are familiar with the Northern Pass support the project, while 36 percent oppose, 15 percent are neutral and 8 percent don't know.
Those results are not significantly different from the first poll in April 2011, which reported 33 percent in support and 38 percent in opposition, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percent.
A spokesperson for Northeast Utilities, chief sponsor of the project in partnership with HydroQuebec, cheered the poll results as showing an increase in support.
"Despite years of opponents spending millions to spread misinformation and run misleading ad campaigns, we're pleased to see another statewide poll that shows broad support from residents for Northern Pass and the clean, low-cost hydropower it would bring into the state and region," Michael Skelton said.
The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which has led the fight against Northern Pass through its "Trees Not Towers" campaign, sees the latest poll results as more bad news for the project.
"These certainly aren't the poll results the project proponents would have wanted, especially after spending so much to try to move the needle," Forest Society spokesman Jack Savage said. "They haven't changed any minds, and at the end of the day too many people oppose Northern Pass as proposed."
Northern Pass opponents have been pushing for burial of the 1,200-megawatt power lines if they are to be built at all. "There is a way for Northern Pass to gain the approval it seeks," said Savage, "and that's to agree to bury the transmission line. Failing that, Northern Pass is likely to languish."
Publicity surrounding the cost of energy and shortage of natural gas this winter may have helped boost support slightly.
"The need to develop new sources of energy is clear, not only because of the volatility and high prices from this winter, but also due to the impending retirements of thousands of megawatts of power plants we all rely on to keep the lights on," said Skelton. "ISO-New England (the grid operator) has warned that 8,000 megawatts of generation is at risk of retirement by 2020."
Efforts by both sides to influence public opinion appear to have had little effect, according to Andy Smith of the Survey Center: "I think there's probably a bit of a stalemate in terms of who has been able to influence the other side."