The Baker administration appeared to distance itself from the controversial Northern Pass transmission line on Friday, one day after the project was dealt a potentially fatal blow.
Judith Judson, the state’s Department of Energy Resources commissioner, gave Eversource Energy and two other electric utilities one week to figure out if Northern Pass remains viable after a stinging rejection from a key New Hampshire committee or else consider moving on to another transmission project.
That could mean that the state and the utilities could choose another project to bring clean power to the state, perhaps via power lines through Maine, Vermont, or even by underwater cable directly from Canada.
Meanwhile, Eversource, the Boston utility behind the $1.6 billion Northern Pass project, vowed to keep it alive. It had promised to complete the project by the end of 2020, helping to fulfill Governor Charlie Baker’s vow to find more clean sources of energy for the state.
Judson’s decision to set a Feb. 9 deadline for moving on the transmission question was disclosed in a letter to the utilities that the Baker administration released late Friday.
On Thursday, the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee surprised the Baker administration and Eversource by denying a key permit for the 192-mile transmission project, a move that threw into turmoil a state-engineered bidding process to bring more clean energy to Massachusetts.
Eversource is both the developer of Northern Pass, and a member of the panel that in January chose the transmission project as the best option to import massive amounts of clean energy from Canada. The selection committee for the clean energy contracts also included officials from National Grid, Unitil, and the Baker administration.
One key argument for choosing Northern Pass was Eversource’s assertion that it could be quickly permitted and built within a few short years, despite facing intense opposition from New Hampshire residents who said it would despoil the landscape that is at the heart of the tourism economy.
Eversource, which has already spent about $250 million on Northern Pass, has vowed to get the New Hampshire decision overturned. But that could trigger a lengthy appeal process that would make it impossible for Eversource to fulfill its promise that the additional clean power would be flowing into Massachusetts by the end of 2020.
The New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee vote, Judson said in her letter to the utilities, has the potential to “significantly impact or render infeasible” the 2020 target.
The next steps for the state and the utilities could include the state and utilities sticking it out with Northern Pass and its power supplier, Canadian energy giant Hydro-Quebec, or returning to the bid selection process to pick another big transmission project.
For its part, Eversource said it is focused on fighting the rejection in New Hampshire, first by asking the committee to reconsider its decision, and if that doesn’t succeed, possibly challenging it at the state’s Supreme Court.
“We’re studying all the legal options we have to move forward,” Eversource spokesman Martin Murray said.
But several other people in the New England energy industry said the New Hampshire decision Thursday was a death knell for Northern Pass.
“The appropriate thing for Eversource to do is to abandon the field, and get out of the way,” said Anthony Buxton, a Portland, Maine-based lawyer who represents a number of industrial energy users in New England. “It’s absolutely clear that the advantage Northern Pass touted – that it could be permitted and built quickly – is gone.”
This unprecedented bid process was set in motion by a 2016 state law aimed at bringing more clean energy, such as hydropower and wind power, into Massachusetts. The law’s primary goals included reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving the supply of electricity, particularly in winter months, as older power plants retire.
Other bidders for the clean energy contracts included transmission lines that would also import power from Canada, but by different routes. One would bring in Hydro-Quebec electricity through a power line in Maine, and a second would bring that Canadian power down via Vermont.
Another project from Emera would bring power by an undersea cable that would stretch from New Brunswick to Plymouth. And a fifth line proposed by National Grid would bring wind power from Canada via a route that would cross Vermont and New Hampshire.
The clock isn’t in Northern Pass’ favor. The site evaluation committee rarely reconsiders these kinds of votes. An appeal to the New Hampshire Supreme Court could take more than a year, and potential litigation from New Hampshire residents and environmental opponents also could add delays.
“If you play it out, I struggle to see how they can successfully develop the project in the timelines they need to,” said Jim Monahan, managing partner of the Dupont Group in Concord, N.H., a political consulting firm.
Monahan, who represents the New England Power Generators Association, which has opposed the project, said he doesn’t understand what Baker administration officials were thinking when they endorsed Northern Pass.
“My sense is that the administration was only listening to Eversource, and that Eversource wasn’t really as candid as they should have been about the opposition,” he said. “I don’t believe you had to spend more than a few hours in Concord listening to the siting committee to know that there would be challenges.”
Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, who supported Northern Pass, said he was “frankly stunned and disappointed by both the timing and outcome” of the site committee’s decision. However, Sununu officials declined to say whether the governor had provided any assurances to the Baker administration about the project’s viability.
In 2015, Eversource unveiled plans to put about a third of the power line project underground, primarily through the White Mountain National Forest area, in response to critics who said the project would mar the Granite State’s rustic landscape.
But that wasn’t enough for the New Hampshire site committee, which rejected the power line on the grounds it would hurt the state’s economy, in part by discouraging tourism and depressing property values.
Opponents said they hope the Baker administration recognizes the difficult path ahead for Northern Pass.
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