The Baker administration moved forward with the largest clean energy procurement in the state’s history on Thursday by selecting the highly controversial Northern Pass project to deliver hydroelectricity from Quebec along a hotly contested transmission line through New Hampshire.
Northern Pass, a partnership of Hydro-Quebec and Eversource Energy, will now move on to negotiate a 20-year, multi-billion-dollar contract that will be submitted for approval to the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities this spring. Terms of the contract will be disclosed at that time, but top state officials insisted the Northern Pass proposal excelled on cost, permitting, timing of delivery, and its ability to help the state meet its 2020 carbon emissions targets.
“Without being able to disclose the specific numbers, the collective grouping of all of those elements had this project standing out amongst the rest of the field,” said Matthew Beaton, the governor’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs.
Bill Quinlan, president of Eversource New Hampshire, insisted Northern Pass, if it wins a key Granite State permit soon, will begin construction later this year and complete the project in 2020, a full two years ahead of the timetable set by most of its rivals. Quinlan said the contract calls for the delivery of 9.45 million megawatt hours of energy, which is close to 20 percent of Massachusetts electricity consumption over the course of a year.
Reaction from environmental groups to the Northern Pass selection was negative, and the tone of their comments suggested they would not give up the fight against the project even if it wins approval next month from New Hampshire’s Site Evaluation Committee.
“Choosing Northern Pass reflects a process corrupted by the heavy hand of our region’s largest utility. This decision is a slap in the face to dozens of affected communities and thousands of local residents who have been outspoken in opposing this harmful proposal,” said Greg Cunningham, director of the Conservation Law Foundation’s clean energy and climate change program. “To sell their project, they have peddled mistruths to the public and to the selection committee. It is not the solution Massachusetts wants or needs, and CLF will continue to oppose it.”
During the runup to Thursday’s announcement, Northern Pass came under heavy fire from competitors, including two projects that would have also imported hydro-electricity from Quebec via transmission lines through Vermont and Maine and a third project that would have imported wind power from Quebec.
An undercurrent to much of the opposition was a feeling that Eversource had an inside track during the contracting process because of its perceived close ties to the Baker administration and its participation along with National Grid and Unitil in crafting the original request for proposals for clean energy and in selecting the eventual winner.
The Appalachian Mountain Club, an opponent of Northern Pass, said in a statement that the project was selected “by a committee comprised of Eversource itself.” The New England Power Generators Association, which opposed the clean energy procurement in general, issued a statement saying “Eversource wrote the RFP and, by picking its own project as the winner, has made consumers the losers.”
Beaton noted the legislation authorizing the clean energy procurement mandated the participation of Eversource and the other utilities because of their expertise in crafting such deals. He said steps were taken by the utilities themselves and with the hiring of an independent evaluator to prevent any self-dealing.
Judith Judson, the commissioner of the Department of Energy Resources, which worked closely with the independent evaluator, said she thought the process was fair.
As for Eversource having close ties to the Baker administration, Beaton said the governor works with all parties. “I do not think Eversource has any closer ties than any other entities that we deal with on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
Companies that lost out to Eversource said little on Thursday, but they had been quite vocal over the past few months. Central Maine Power, which partnered with Hydro-Quebec to import hydropower into the region via Maine, had insisted its project was the cheapest. TDI-New England, which partnered with Hydro-Quebec to import hydropower via transmission lines under Lake Champlain and underground in Vermont, said it was fully permitted and endorsed by its host state. National Grid, which wanted to import wind power from Quebec, said any of the Hydro-Quebec proposals wouldn’t result in a net reduction in emissions because the hydro facilities that will supply the power have already been built.
Back in October, Donald Jessome, the CEO of TDI-New England, said he was appreciative of all the steps taken to insure a fair selection process. Still, he admitted he was a bit nervous. “At the end of the day, I’m being graded by my competitors,” he said. “I can’t help but be concerned. It’s not the best place to be in a competitive process.”
Quinlan of Eversource said the long, drawn-out permitting process with New Hampshire’s Site Evaluation Committee is wrapping up. He said the committee begins deliberations Tuesday and is expected to conclude its work February 23, with an oral decision due shortly after that and a written decision in March.
Quinlan said he was very confident Eversource would win approval from the committee. Beaton also said he was confident. If the decision goes against Eversource, Quinlan said the company would evaluate its options.
In its press release, the Baker administration said the selection of Northern Pass “will lead to clean energy pricing that is competitive with carbon-emitting fossil fuels.” Judson echoed that theme in an interview. “We were very pleasantly surprised by how cost-effective the bids came in. It’s great news for clean energy that it is able to compete with traditional energy resources.”
Gordon Van Welie, who oversees the regional power grid, said in testimony this week to Congress that he welcomed the state’s clean energy procurement and another procurement in the works to purchase electricity from offshore wind farms. In his remarks, van Welie said such projects could only be developed “if supported by long-term, state-backed contracts that provide above-market revenues.”
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