Eversource is asking New Hampshire regulators to reconsider their rejection of the Northern Pass project.
The utility filed a motion Wednesday with the state Site Evaluation Committee, or SEC. It wants the committee’s Feb. 1 denial of the project thrown out and the case re-heard. Eversource argues the SEC didn’t do its required diligence in discussing all the criteria the project had to meet to get a permit.
The committee, made up of state regulators and public representatives, only got through two of four criteria before deciding the project couldn’t pass muster.
In an effort to change the SEC’s minds the second time around, Eversource is also agreeing to myriad conditions state agencies and the counsel for the public in the case had suggested the SEC impose.
Those include more public outreach and financial assurances during and after the project’s construction, as well as environmental and traffic protections along its 192-mile Northern Pass route.
Eversource’s motion also explains how it plans to earmark millions in funding it had already promised to spend, but hadn’t yet divided up.
‘FUNDING IS THE ANSWER’
If Northern Pass moves forward, the utility says it will allocate about half of its proposed $200 million Forward NH Fund as follows:
- $25 million to promote tourism and recreation along the project’s route;
- $25 million to repay close neighbors of the transmission line whose property values suffer in the first five years after it’s built;
- $20 million for energy efficiency projects and other community development efforts;
- $25 million for local planning and “community betterment” in the 31 communities along the project’s route.
Another $5 million of the fund was already set aside as a loan to the Balsams resort.
The fund was initially described as extra economic development money to benefit the region the line would traverse. Such offerings are a common mitigation tool for large-scale energy developments.
Eversource says the SEC can divvy up the remaining $100 million of the fund for other conditions it might want to impose.
Altogether, Bill Quinlan, the company's New Hampshire president, says he thinks it’ll address the criterion that sunk Northern Pass at the SEC – its effect on the “orderly development of the region” – as well as tests they didn’t get to, such as whether the project serves the public interest.
"We think when you look at that package, that comprehensive set of conditions, it really should get to the heart of the issues that the SEC found concern with,” Quinlan says. “That’s our hope.”
The utility is also putting numbers to other benefits it had already promised to provide:
- $50 million for North Country utility upgrades;
- $7.5 million for job creation in that region;
- $30 million for the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission to put toward benefits for ratepayers.
All of these pre-planned allocations are separate from the project’s estimated cost of $1.6 billion, apart from the utility upgrade money.
And Quinlan says they’re open to renegotiating other concessions with the SEC, such as construction methods.
“But in many instances, funding is the answer,” Quinlan says. “If there is a quantifiable impact, for example, on property values or tourism, one way to address that is to provide sufficient funding to make people whole or to promote tourism at a far greater level than the perceived impact.”
Longtime critics of the project are skeptical that the appeal will change the SEC’s minds.
“The conditions Northern Pass says they agree to today were on the table previously for the SEC to take into consideration,” says spokesman Jack Savage of the Society for the Protection for New Hampshire forests. “They simply want a do-over.”
He says the project’s problems can’t “be remedied by giving away money.” And the nonprofit Protect the Granite State, which opposes Northern Pass, agrees.
“Today's actions by Northern Pass are nothing more than a desperate ploy to resurrect a dead project,” says PGS senior advisor Judy Reardon, in a statement. “It won’t work.”
UNCERTAINTY IN MASSACHUSETTS
Quinlan says Eversource stands by its original proposal, and is simply responding to the SEC's concerns with its motion for reconsideration.
“I thought the initial application was well thought-out and well supported,” he says. “I don’t think we could have anticipated precisely where [the SEC’s] issues were going to be, so we had to await their deliberation. Now that we’ve had the benefit of hearing them deliberate, we know exactly what it’s going to take to overcome them, and that’s the foundation for these commitments.”
The motion does specify one other financial benefit of the project. Eversource says it can raise up to $300 million to cut costs for ratepayers by selling clean energy credits associated with the project – basically paper certificates, which Eversource calls attributes, that serve as investments in renewable power.
Eversource may sell credits from Northern Pass, or from another Hydro Quebec project known as Phase 2. The Canadian company included credits from that asset in its deal with Eversource to fuel Northern Pass.
Hydropower doesn't currently qualify among the most valuable credits on the market, but Eversource hopes that will change.
“By the time [Northern Pass is] in operation three years from now, we believe the market for those attributes will have evolved, and there’ll be a real market in New England,” says spokesman Martin Murray.
Massachusetts had planned to buy all the clean energy certificates from Northern Pass to help meet its own renewable energy goals.
But with the project’s permit in doubt, Massachusetts regulators are now also considering buying up a competing Hydro Quebec-fueled transmission project in Maine.
The Commonwealth will negotiate with both projects’ developers through March 27. Quinlan says Northern Pass has to “demonstrate progress” by then, and he acknowledges they might not be able to get the project back on its feet in time.
“If Massachusetts moves on for whatever reason, we’ll continue to develop this project,” he says. “I do believe there’s a need in New Hampshire for more than one solution.”
The SEC now has 10 days to decide whether to rehear Eversource’s case. If they say no, Quinlan says the utility will “in all likelihood” take the case next to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
This report comes from The New England News Collaborative, eight public media stations including Rhode Island Public Radio, joining together to tell stories of a changing region, with support from the Corporation For Public Broadcasting.