The unraveling of a major New England transmission project has pit environmentalists against clean energy advocates, illustrating the difficulty of balancing regional climate goals with the rights of communities affected directly by grid infrastructure.
New Hampshire regulators last week rejected the $1.6 billion Northern Pass line that would bring hydropower from Quebec to Massachusetts – a project considered critical to meeting the Bay State’s ambitious renewable power goals (Energywire, Feb. 7).
Declaring itself “shocked and outraged” by the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee’s 7-0 decision, Eversource Energy is weighing whether to appeal or take its case to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. It’s likely the project will be tied up in administrative deliberations for years.
Some renewable energy advocates share the company’s frustration.
“I think one of the biggest challenges in this world of making prudent long-term energy choices is that it’s easy to look at any individual project or proposal and find something wrong with it and reject it,” said Eric Hittinger, an assistant professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “There’s always going to be some unfavorable aspect to any given choice.”
He added, “The biggest issue is that we look at these individual choices and don’t relate them back to the big picture of what our goals are overall.”
Massachusetts’ only nuclear power plant, the Pilgrim Nuclear Generating Station on Cape Cod Bay, is set to close next year, taking offline 680 megawatts of emissions-free power generation and opening a gap in New England’s grid.
“From my perspective, as a resident of New England that cares about climate change, the Pilgrim nuclear station is going to close next year and there doesn’t seem to be much that will prevent or delay that closure,” said Jesse Jenkins, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Energy Initiative. “We need a reliable replacement for that power station. The clock is ticking, and this will set back the timeline for the state to bring online alternatives.”
The flip side: Grass-roots groups and communities along the project’s path are worried about its potential impact on property values and tourism. And the Sierra Club argues that Hydro-Québec draws power from massive projects that threaten wildlife, rivers and people.
“We do not support that kind of energy,” said Cathy Corkery, director of the group’s New Hampshire chapter. “What we do support is localized energy,” such as solar panels, she said. “There’s also a huge potential for job creation. That fits into the future of clean energy and the goals that we’re trying to meet.”
The Conservation Law Foundation also opposes the project, saying it would harm New Hampshire and criticizing Eversource for failing to work with the communities to limit those impacts. Staff attorney Melissa Birchard said that 22 of the 31 New Hampshire towns are “vehemently opposed” to the permit.
Hittinger said compromise is needed to meet broad clean energy goals.
“People want to push for what they see as their ideal solution,” Hittinger said. “I would include the Sierra Club in that.”
Said MIT’s Jenkins, “At the end of the day, I’m a little bit concerned that no matter what you do to try to appease and listen to the concerns of local populations, we’re going to continue to face tradeoffs where we’re talking about projects that are sited in Northern states in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont that are used primarily to export energy to the population centers.”
For her part, Birchard placed the blame on the project’s developer. “Eversource has been dishonest and arrogant in its pursuit of Northern Pass,” she said. “They’ve just refused to work with New Hampshire to reduce the impacts of this project.”
And Corkery said Northern Pass is too large for New England.
“I think the idea of setting goals and trying to reach those goals with clean energy takes determination and deliberate action,” she said. “I think this was kind of an attempt to make a shortcut. There are ways to meet that goal, probably a lot cheaper, and something that will be more appropriately sized for our region.”
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