Supporters of small-scale renewable energy projects in New Hampshire are wary of the proposed $1.1 billion Hydro-Quebec Northern Pass project because of concerns that it would squeeze them out of the marketplace.
The project would bring 1,200 megawatts of electricity from a dam in Canada through New Hampshire to a converter station in Franklin so it could be piped into the New England power grid. At issue are the state’s “renewable portfolio standards,” a law requiring more and more energy each year come from small-scale renewable providers, which currently do not include Hydro-Quebec – one of the largest hydroelectric operations in the world.
Northeast Utilities, Hydro-Quebec’s partner in the project, has not announced if it would buy power from the Canadian company but has acknowledged it as a possibility. If it did, Hydro-Quebec’s energy will never compete with the biomass plants, wind farms and solar harvesters of New Hampshire because of the renewable portfolio standards’ exclusion of large-scale hydroelectricity, said Martin Murray, a spokesman for Northeast Utilities, the company that owns Public Service of New Hampshire.
Nevertheless, environmental and local business advocates worry that once the project is complete, Northeast Utilities and Hydro-Quebec would have plenty of incentive to attempt to change the law and have large-scale hydroelectricity be considered a “renewable” source of power for the state.
If that happens, Hydro-Quebec’s plentiful, cheap power would certainly win out, said Fred King, a former state legislator who lives in Colebrook. King has been spearheading efforts in Coos County to attract renewable energy projects that would increase the tax base and decrease unemployment in the North Country.
“I think if Public Service (of New Hampshire) is successful in getting this project, they will have a bill introduced,” King said. This would put an end to his years-long crusade to get support for an upgrade to the Coos loop of transmission lines, which would allow plants in northern New Hampshire to export more power. The current lines are nearing their capacity, King said, and without an upgrade, the area can’t attract new projects, like a proposed wind farm in Dixville that was recently shelved for that reason.
“We thought we were on the right track, and we put a lot of time and effort into this,” King said. “We are hurting up here, and we’ve still got the resources we could put to work.” Biomass plants could put the wood that powered the region’s paper mills back to use and create jobs, he said.
Committed to both
Murray said Public Service of New Hampshire is committed to supporting both large-scale renewable energy like Hydro-Quebec and small-scale producers.
“Hydro power from Canada cannot be certified under New Hampshire renewable portfolio standards, and we have no plans at all to seek a change to that,” Murray said.
Right now, PSNH meets its renewable requirement by buying power from a wind farm in Lempster, owned by Portland, Ore.,-based Iberdrola Renewables and other projects.
Still, Hydro-Quebec lobbied the Vermont legislature to change its definition of “renewable” to include the power generated by large-scale dams in Canada in a bill that passed in June. Representatives from the company attended the signing, according to accounts by local news media.
“Vermont currently doesn’t have a renewable requirement, but if they get one in the future, it will now include projects of all sizes,” said Sandy Levine, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation in Vermont. “The concern is that if Vermont and other states remove the size limitation and allow imports from Quebec to meet the renewable energy requirements, there won’t be development of other renewable sources in the region.”
A spokeswoman for Hydro-Quebec said that she could not comment on the company’s lobbying plans, except to say that it is committed to helping the United States solve its long-term need for renewable and clean energy.
The state’s Public Utilities Commission, the governmental group that enforces the state laws that involve energy providers, said that the question of whether the “renewable” label will be reconsidered is a legislative one. Anne Ross, general counsel for the commission, said that there’s no discussion in the commission about broaching the subject with the legislature. She added that the commission doesn’t have strong feelings about what kind of projects should get the renewable label and which should not.
‘A regional issue’
Jim O’Brian, president of Conservation New Hampshire, said that New Hampshire is a small state with relatively low energy consumption. Energy is a regional issue, not a state one, he said.
“People have this idea that energy stops at the state border, and that’s just not true” O’Brian said. New Hampshire and all the other states in New England, can – and do – get their “conventional” power, whether hydro, fossil fuels or nuclear, from anyone in any state who provides a competitive rate. The same is true for renewable energy. There is no “local” requirement in the renewable portfolio standards. It can come from anywhere.
New Hampshire already has 18 percent more electricity that it can use on any given day. Instead, New Hampshire is the state wedged between Canada’s power-producing dams and southern New England, including Massachusetts – a state far hungrier for affordable power than New Hampshire.
Affordable renewable energy became an election issue in that state this year when Charlie Baker, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, suggested that Hydro-Quebec should be labeled “renewable” to help Massachusetts meet its renewable requirement using more affordable energy.
“We don’t think it’s a good idea,” said Ben Wright, an advocate with Environment Massachusetts. “We want to encourage renewable energy generation and production in our own state. The idea of getting all our renewable power from Canada does not thrill us.”
Baker lost the election, but the re-labeling is something that the Canadian consulate will continue to push for in Massachusetts, Wright added.
Even without changes to what states consider to be renewable, having so much extra, cheap, electricity on the grid scares away potential investors looking to start small renewable energy projects, King said.
“Here comes this 1200 megawatt line from Canada, and it’s obviously put all other projects in Coos County on hold because it will soak up the market for any needed power,” he said.
Northeast Utilities, again, points to the fact that small-scale renewable energy producers don’t have to compete against conventional providers – including Hydro-Quebec – because of the state’s renewable portfolio energy requirements. And if anything is pushing other providers out of the market, it’s natural gas, Murray said. Natural gas prices are at a record low and decreasing interest in renewable energy harvesting across the nation.
For potential projects in the North Country, arguments about renewable portfolio standards and market depression are just noise until the transmission lines in Coos County are upgraded, said Tom Colgan, chief executive officer of Wagner Forest Management. The Lyme-based company wanted to build a 200 megawatt wind farm in Dixville, but after two years and over a half-million dollars in planning and studies, it concluded that the current transmission lines couldn’t handle that much electricity.
Until King and others can find a way to upgrade the transmission lines, the project will be shelved, he said.
“It points to the reality that potential renewable energy development continues to be at the mercy of insufficient transmission lines,” Colgan said. He said that he isn’t giving up on the project, and added that if it ever is completed, he hopes that there would be no other impediments – hydroelectricity of otherwise – to stop the project from bringing economic development to the North Country and New Hampshire.
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