Mass. hunts for new power link from Canada

Source: Saqib Rahim, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, March 30, 2018

Massachusetts has spotted a huge source of renewable energy in the Great White North. Can the state reach it?

It’s a question that must have resonance for some in Massachusetts today, following the news that state authorities are moving on from the Northern Pass hydropower project, a 1-gigawatt power line to Quebec once seen as the foundation of Gov. Charlie Baker’s (R) clean energy plans.

The project failed to get a siting permit in New Hampshire, even after a brief time extension. Now Massachusetts is switching to another Quebec-bound project, the 1.2-GW New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC). If permitted, it would go through Maine.

Northern Pass’ opponents savored their victory yesterday. The Conservation Law Foundation, which said the project would have damaged the landscape and stifled renewables sited in New England, bade the project good riddance — and set its sights on Maine.

“CLF is already an active participant in the pending NECEC proceedings before the Maine Public Utilities Commission and Maine Department of Environmental Protection to ensure that the project is properly sited and minimizes impacts on our communities and environment,” the group said in a statement.

The news marks a major victory for local interests in the Northeast, showing that they can exert power over major, even international, energy projects, even if they’re carrying renewable energy.

In the case of Northern Pass, the project sponsor, Eversource Energy, had secured 14 regulatory approvals before being denied by the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee this year.

Conversely, the Northern Pass news may send shivers through those in government and industry who are counting on big-ticket transmission projects to meet the region’s climate and energy goals.

Most in the energy and environment world — but not all — view power lines as a key tool for the Northeastern states to get out of their energy pickle. With nuclear, coal and oil units retiring, renewable energy resources are still too few to replace them.

Cheap natural gas from Pennsylvania is knocking at the door. But in states such as Massachusetts and New York, the predominant view is that they should skip pipelines and build power lines.

Transmission companies, partnering with Hydro-Québec, have been happy to oblige. They’ve presented projects that would link the Northeast’s congested grids to dams in Canada that are generating well in excess of local demand (Energywire, Sept. 21, 2017).

Hydro-Québec yesterday defended Northern Pass as a worthy project but said it’s moving on to negotiations around New England Clean Energy Connect.

A Hydro-Québec official, speaking to E&E News yesterday in New York City, said the company remains confident it can get projects built — and that the Northeast will eventually see the case for it.

“Transmission, I think, throughout the entire continent is a challenge,” said Gary Sutherland, director of external relations for Hydro-Québec International. “It’s part of our business; it’s a part that has encountered a lot of difficulties recently, both in Quebec and throughout the Northeast. … Technology’s going very quickly, though, in terms of how we build these lines. So I think that there are technology solutions that would be put in place.”

But so far, none of the region’s big-ticket proposals has been able to jump the financial, political and regulatory hurdles in its path. The Champlain Hudson Power Express, which would link Quebec to New York City, remains in abeyance. Northern Pass has been proposed for most of a decade.

In Massachusetts, the Baker administration in January announced the Northern Pass project as the lead candidate, of 46 applicants, to meet a major clean energy solicitation by the state. Some criticized the selection, calling the process opaque and potentially skewed toward Eversource’s interests.

But officials under Baker said the project won on the merits. It fit the governor’s three qualities of interest — “cost, carbon and reliability” — and offered the scale to serve almost a fifth of Massachusetts’ annual demand. That would give the state a renewable energy base as it waited for other resources, like offshore wind and solar, to scale up.

Eversource ran into problems in February, when the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee denied the project because it would overly disturb residents and businesses in its state. Baker’s office, which wants a clean energy contract in front of regulators by the end of April, agreed to give Eversource until Tuesday.

But Eversource couldn’t convince the Site Evaluation Committee to change its decision. Now Massachusetts’ focus turns to the project it selected as a backup.

NECEC, which is being developed by a subsidiary of Avangrid Inc., Central Maine Power Co., has fewer permits than Northern Pass does. Central Maine Power’s goal is to ink a 20-year contract with utilities and present it to Massachusetts regulators by April 25.

“[Central Maine Power] has successfully built other large scale projects here in our home state, so we’re confident we can meet our commitments to the Commonwealth,” Doug Herling, president and CEO of Central Maine Power, said in a statement.

Mark LeBel, a staff attorney at the Acadia Center, said NECEC may have a better shot than Eversource did.

“There may be some permitting issues to resolve, but from what I’ve seen Avangrid is taking a better approach to these issues and has been working constructively with a wide array of stakeholders,” he said by email. “That’s not a guarantee of course, but I think there is some interest in the environmental community from seeing this move forward in a relatively pragmatic way.”