Understanding Northern Pass

Is Northern Pass inevitable? Would we ever get used to it? The headlines focus on towers and power, but it’s really a story about people and land.
Proposed route for Northern Pass. Click here for a larger version of the map.

This story was done in collaboration with New Hampshire Public Radio. Sam Evans-Brown is NHPR’s Environmental Reporter. Here are parts one, two and three of his three-part series that delves further into the proposed Northern Pass Project.

When the towers were installed they came carried by helicopters. The thrumming sound of the 80-foot-tall, steel lattice pylons being positioned along the right-of-way was the first thing that many had heard of the new high-voltage transmission line connecting Canada to the New England electric market.

They hadn’t picked up on the controversy that had led developers to relocate a swath of the line in the North Country, and they hadn’t paid much attention to concerns that the region was getting too much of its electricity from a single source.

This is not a scene from a future in which the Northern Pass has been approved, stringing 187 miles of power lines between the population centers of New England and the massive hydro-power network of Quebec.

This was Hopkinton, New Hampshire, at the end of the 1980s.

“It was just days and days of them bringing these gigantic towers in, and I had no idea what was happening,” remembers Joanie McIntire, a Concord realtor who lived in Hopkinton at the time.

There are important differences between that power line — called Phase II, and owned by National Grid — and the very controversial Northern Pass, which Northeast Utilities, the parent company of Public Service of New Hampshire, has proposed. Much of the Phase II line was placed in between two existing ones, so the right-of-way didn’t need to be widened and most of its towers are somewhat shorter than the planned Northern Pass towers.

But there is also a great deal that the old and new lines have in common:  the connection to Hydro-Quebec, the HVDC technology they use, their scale and scope. What’s more, outcry in the North Country in the 1980s succeeded in getting the northern section of the National Grid line (called Phase I) relocated into Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, where there was substantially less opposition.

There are also historical echoes in the electrical markets. When Phase II was built the region got a huge portion of its electricity from burning oil, and the drumbeat of the dire consequences of dependence on foreign oil was sounding in policymakers’ ears. Today, PSNH argues that the New England grid is too dependent on natural gas and this time the drumbeat is that of climate change and an expected shortfall in energy production as the region’s aging coal and oil plants begin to close.

But the uproar over Phase II never seemed to capture the state’s attention. In that regard, the Northern Pass fight looks more like the drawn-out battle over the Seabrook nuclear power plant. This has led some observers to predict that Northern Pass will be OKed over the objectors — just like Seabrook — and be erected all along the length of the state, just like Phase II, to carry even more hydro-power into the state. 

There are numerous legal questions that remain to be decided. Notably, the chess game between Northern Pass buying property to put together a route and the conservation group, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (SPNHF), buying land to block that route concluded with the developer proposing to bury eight miles of line under a North Country road. SPNHF plans to argue that it owns some of the land under that road, and the line can’t be run there without their permission.

“I would think the project would be approved,” says Peter Brown, an energy lawyer with Preti-Flaherty who represented the concerns of the state when Phase II came before the NH Site Evaluation Committee (SEC), a 15-member board made up of state commissioners and directors of affected agencies that evaluates such proposals. “Why would the SEC say anything but ‘OK, make sure you don’t put a tower in the middle of this brook’ or ‘watch out for an endangered species over here’ or ‘don’t go along a famous ridgeline in the White Mountain National Forest’? If you do all that, you’re on your own.”

Adjudicating Ugly

When Phase II came before the deciders back in 1985, it was an unfamiliar technology, and the opponents of the Phase II project focused heavily on the uncertainty of the health impacts of living near a high-voltage transmission line. Some concerns were more serious than others. Brown says during a public hearing held in the North Country one farmer announced, “I don’t want my tractor starting up when I’m not on it.” 

More concerning were questions of increases in diseases such as cancer for those living near power lines, but ultimately, the SEC didn’t buy it. “The arguments they gave were not persuasive enough in Phase II to cause the project to be denied,” says Bruce Ellsworth, a long-time, now-retired New Hampshire electrical regulator who sat on the SEC during Phase II. And the evidence of health impacts hasn’t exactly piled up since that power line was approved. After 30 years of studies, “at best, from the standpoint of the opponents’ view, the studies are indeterminate,” says Brown. Some opponents disagree, but the science backing them will be difficult to defend.

But most opponents have since shifted their focus. This time around the complaints against the project have focused on the aesthetics of the towers themselves, and for this challenge there is some precedent.

A little over 25 miles to the southwest of where Northern Pass’ proposed route turns to the east is a ridge of low hills in Antrim. All around the ridge conservation groups have set aside land, chaining together lakes, rivers and forests into what they dub a “super-sanctuary.” This rocky rise is where a company called Eolian Energy hoped to erect ten 492-foot-tall wind turbines.

That is until the SEC gave the project a thumbs-down, a first for a wind farm in New Hampshire. In the denial the SEC wrote that the turbines “would appear out of scale” in the low, undeveloped hills that would surround it, causing “significant qualitative impacts.”

The Antrim decision means that Northern Pass “is not an automatic ‘yes’” says Amy Manzelli, who represented opponents of the wind farm. “I think that the SEC will be trying to answer the questions … and they will be willing to say no if the weight of the evidence shows that the answer is no.” The “questions” at play are numerous, from aesthetics to air and water quality to impacts on historic sites and what is termed “orderly development.”

Antrim shows that the Northern Pass decision could hinge not just on the look and size of the towers, but the scenery that they pass through. The SEC wrote in its wind farm decision that “the turbines are too tall and too imposing in the context of the setting.” In other words, it will be more convincing to argue that steel lattice towers aren’t an imposition along their path through the industrial Parks of the Concord Heights than in the White Mountains and the woods of the North Country.

There is also a lot of space between an out-and-out refusal and an unqualified yes for the SEC to maneuver. Once the committee hears the arguments surrounding the proposal, which PSNH expects to submit in mid-2014, they could insist that sections be buried, moved or modified. Those changes could be small or substantial. “The committee might end up with conditions that the developer could find unacceptable, clearly that’s a possible scenario,” says Doug Patch, an energy lawyer and who sat as vice chair of the SEC for more than nine years. 

Changing the Game

In September, Governor Maggie Hassan penned an op-ed in the Boston Globe that opponents called a “game-changer,” in which she staked out a contrary position to the project, proclaiming “exploring new energy sources like large-scale hydro power does not mean just accepting what Northern Pass has offered.”

UNH Polls have found modest support for Northern Pass among those familiar with the project, but a substantial percentage of the state is still undecided or hasn’t heard of it. In the Statehouse, where the fight is loudest, Northern Pass stands on uncertain ground.

Recently, a committee in the NH House of Representatives voted to recommend passing a bill that would let the SEC presume that transmission lines that aren’t “substantially buried” would have unreasonable visual impact. Whispers of more bills that would specifically target Northern Pass echo in the Legislature’s halls.

There was a time when Public Service of New Hampshire had such political clout that it could count on winning most fights in Concord, but increasingly its credibility with lawmakers is dwindling. Northern Pass is just one of several open fronts between the Legislature and the utility. Simultaneously, Public Service is fighting pushes from competitors to get regulators to force them to sell their power plants and to block them from getting paid back for a $422 million dollar scrubber that cleans mercury and other pollutants from the emissions of a power plant in Bow.

The scrubber issue in particular has irked lawmakers, who feel PSNH misled them. “The debate about the scrubber is making people like me test their hypothesis that it’s too expensive to bury the [Northern Pass],” says Republic Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, “I don’t buy their argument that it’s too expensive when they were off by almost a factor of seven-fold” on how much the scrubber would cost customers.

PSNH is watching the situation carefully, saying that any legislation to sink Northern Pass will also sink $1.4 billion in construction spending, 1,200 construction jobs and $28 million per year in local, county and state tax revenue and $20 to $35 million in lower energy costs. It contends that bills that target individual proposals will scare off skittish investors in other projects too. But even so, utility officials recognize that they are on shifting ground.

“We wouldn’t be proposing this project if we didn’t think it had public benefits and public merit,” says Gary Long, the once-president of PSNH whose job is now to advocate for Northern Pass. “But is it a certainty? No, not by any means.”

A Shifting Baseline

Nancy Martland, coordinator of the Sugar Hill Tower Opponents and a vocal Northern Pass opponent, surveys the valley floor along which the transmission line would run.
photo by john hession

Most of the uproar around Northern Pass has been focused on the impact the towers would have on the landscape. The opposition has floated orange balloons to show how high the towers would stand and groups like the Appalachian Mountain Club have commissioned visual impact studies that question those commissioned by PSNH. Opponents point to projects in Maine, Vermont and New York that are substantially or totally underground and underwater as the type of hydro-power transmission that they would find acceptable. 

Standing atop of a prominent sledding hill on the western side of Sugar Hill, Nancy Martland, a vocal Northern Pass opponent, surveys the valley floor along which the transmission line would run. She and other opponents chafe at the suggestion that New Hampshire will adjust to the towers. “Why should anyone be asked to get over something like that?” she asks. Martland, who drives under the Phase II line pretty frequently, doesn’t think that she will ever get used to those towers. “I’m horrified every time I see it,” she says, “and I see it a lot.”

If the line is built, Granite Staters will see the pylons whenever they pass near or under them. But what exactly would show that the state “gotten over” them? One indication is whether folks are willing to buy homes near them.

Currently, realtors working in and around the proposed route say sales of some second homes have ground to a halt. “What we’re seeing on a day-to-day basis is buyers choosing to not buy,” says Andrew Smith, who has sold properties above and below Franconia Notch for 20 years. “The fear of the unknown is a huge impact right now.” Smith says his company represents around 20 properties that aren’t selling because of the project, and a few owners that needed to sell quickly had to do so at a deep discount.

But if the line is built, will that effect persist? There’s a large body of research that has attempted to answer this question. Studies tend to find that being near power lines doesn’t automatically knock value off a home. About half of the studies find that transmission lines reduce prices by an average of somewhere between three and 10 percent; the other half find no effect.

But at the same time, surveys typically find that somewhere between half and three-fourths of people living near high-voltage transmission lines don’t like them. A study in California found that this effect is strongest among those who were around before the lines were built — validating Martland’s stance that it’s unlikely that she would ever learn to ignore them.

It’s not particularly intuitive why, despite widespread negative feelings, many people seem to be willing to ignore power lines when they shell out for a home, but in Goffstown where the Phase II power line streaks through a number of housing developments, there are some clues. John Turner owns a piece of the Phase II right-of-way in one of these neighborhoods. The power lines are only a few hundred feet from the ample deck off the back of the house. Turner and his family moved to this house from another one along the right-of-way, and he doesn’t think he got a good deal on the property because the lines were so near. “Back in 2005 the properties were limited. To buy something this size you had to buy where you could in this area,” he says.

Many studies are done in urban and suburban zones where homes are hard to find and views are not a primary selling point. But even so, they can make a difference.

Meagan Therriault and Geoff Pinard, whose driveway spills out practically beneath the Phase II power lines in Goffstown (installed in the 1980s), say they’ve made their peace with the pylons.
Photo by john hession

Just up the road live Meagan Therriault and Geoff Pinard. Their home sits on a rise, and the driveway spills out nearly beneath the power lines. From the front door they have a striking view of the steel lattice pylons that the wires are strung along. “We couldn’t afford to be in this neighborhood if it wasn’t for this house, because of the fact that it was near power lines,” Therriault says. She thinks having them out front is not a bother, though she hastens to add that she and her husband chose their view and didn’t have it imposed on them.

“Real estate is not an exact science,” says Judy Hampe, a realtor who for more than 25 years has sold homes in Hopkinton, including ones very close to the Phase II line. She says there are so many factors influencing sale price — the house, the property, the region, the market — and that generalizing is a bad idea. “[The studies] don’t really tell me anything,” but she says she knows a property that will have a hard time selling because of power lines when she sees one. In her experience about half of buyers are concerned about power lines, but “there’s always a buyer for everything, and it just takes a little bit longer to sell the homes that are by power lines.”

So would the state get over Northern Pass if it were built? The answer is likely something along the lines of — some would, some wouldn’t. “We seem to be capable of getting used to a lot — things that we people couldn’t even imagine,” says Karen Alexander, an ecological historian who spends her time thinking about what’s called the shifting baseline; this is the idea that people tend to accept whatever ecological reality they are born into. “I suppose if Northern Pass got through, in 30 or 40 years people would look at it and say, ‘Oh, that’s just those big power lines,’” she says, “but I don’t think whether we can get used to them is the right question, the question is whether we should get used to them.”

That is, of course, a much harder question.


Last summer Gary Long announced he was stepping down as president of Public Service of New Hampshire to focus on seeing the contested Northern Pass Transmission Line become a reality for the state.
Photo by john hession

During most of the year Hydro-Quebec has plenty of energy to export: they can churn out more than 35,000 megawatts of juice at a time and it takes around 28,000 megawatts to power all of New England at the hottest moment of a hot summer day. During the summer, Quebec uses far less than they can make, and could handle shipping a lot more than the 1,200 megawatts that Northern Pass would carry to New England

Exporting more power boosts revenue for the Canadian company because electricity gets a better price in New England than at home. In 2012 when exports made up about 15 percent of Hydro-Quebec’s sales, they accounted for 24.5 percent of its revenues and they are eager for more. “They very much want to do business with New England,” says PSNH’s Gary Long. “In simple terms it takes transmission lines, and that’s been the difficulty.”

In other words, Hydro-Quebec will try to develop other power lines like Northern Pass until it has enough open lines to export all of its excess summer energy. A project is under way that would connect Quebec to New York City, a second has been proposed that would connect to New England through Vermont. And still more proposed projects would do an end-run around Quebec to connect through Maine to hydro-power in Canada’s Maritime provinces.

Opponents think if PSNH were to back down, a project willing to spend extra to bury a power line through the state would step up. “If that’s what it’s going to cost, it’s important that the developers know it’s going to cost that. And if some of the developers lose some interest, my suspicion is there are other developers who can make the spreadsheets work,” says Christophe Courchesne of the Conservation Law Foundation, one of the project’s leading critics. Needless to say PSNH disagrees, and says the line can’t be buried economically.

While the question of putting the line underground has dominated some headlines about Northern Pass, the larger discussion of how to supply New England with electricity has been going on more quietly in the background. More and more power plants in the region have announced they will shut down — the Vermont Yankee Nuclear station in 2014, and a big coal plant in Massachusetts in 2017 — and for the first time the region’s grid is expecting a shortfall of 1,500 megawatts in 2017 (roughly three times the output of the coal-powered Merrimack Station in Bow). Meanwhile, the drumbeat of energy reformers concerned about climate change continues to throb.

New Hampshire will have to decide how, if at all, it will help the region replace its aging fleet of power plants.

“We really are at an interesting time where people are asking fundamental questions … that’s a good thing” says Meredith Hatfield, the director of the State’s Office of Energy and Planning who is shepherding the work to redo its energy strategy. That document won’t carry the force of law, but would simply tell developers what the state is hoping to build. “When we did the last energy plan there really wasn’t this level of public interest in these issues.”

PSNH’s Gary Long thinks New Hampshire doesn’t need to enact new policies, but rather to get out of its own way. He observes that the state has policies pushing it toward getting more power from renewable sources and reducing CO2, but notes that two technologies that use renewable sources  — wind power and Northern Pass — have become intensely unpopular in some parts of the state.

“When we go into the siting committee, we are totally aligned with state policy,” says Long. “Our problem is not state policy, our problem is the state itself does not support its policy when people try to implement it. And that is the soul-searching the state needs to go through.”

Whatever the state settles on, it’s increasingly clear that there are many tumultuous years to come in energy in New England — whether or not the Northern Pass is built.

The Art of Resistance

The Power of Place,” by conservation photographer Jerry Monkman recently met a $35,000 Kickstarter goal.

When you are fighting against a well-funded opponent, you use whatever you’ve got to even the playing field.

From Picasso’s Guernica to Country Joe and Fish’s “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” to the Beehive Design Collective, art has fueled protest movements and brought some balance to asymmetric battles of resistance. Nowadays, when scrappy grassroots bands storm the Bastilles of power, they leave the pitchforks and torches behind and pick up paint brushes, cameras and guitars.

The resistance movement against the Northern Pass is not without means. Major players like the Society for the Protection of NH Forests have considerable clout. But for the average Jane or Joe to strike a blow requires more than just wearing an orange T-shirt to the “scoping meeting.”

Folk art signage, colorful stunts (like flights of the “Orange Balloon of Truth”), political cartoons and, yes, even protest songs, have all been deployed to win hearts and minds for the opposition

The 60-minute film “Northern Trespass,” made by artsy activists Jan Marvel and Michelle Vaughn (who both appeared on the NH Magazine “It List” last month, as did Gary Long) was preceded by their music video “What We Have Left.” A new short film, “The Power of Place,” by conservation photographer Jerry Monkman recently met a $35,000 Kickstarter goal. Even shorter videos like “Trees Not Towers” by the Society for the Protection of NH Forests are being used to raise funds to buy lands and block Northern Pass routes through the state.

Those in search of collectibles to commemorate their participation in the movement need look no further than The Orange Store at attagirlrecords.com for a variety of kitschy souvenirs.

Categories: Features