Update: The New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee voted unanimously Thursday to reject the Northern Pass permit. Without that, the transmission project cannot proceed. The applicants have 30 days to appeal for a re-hearing from the SEC, WBUR reports. If that effort fails, the utilities can appeal to the state Supreme Court.
This story has been updated to reflect these developments.
Massachusetts, a progressive state with a firm commitment to clean energy, thought it found a way to access a bunch of that clean energy at once. But rather than being met with general satisfaction, the proposal put forth by the state's administration kicked off a controversy that's likely only to grow.
Massachusetts is seeking an influx of clean energy for 2020 to offset the impending closure of the Pilgrim nuclear power plant and achieve its carbon reduction goals. The administration of Gov. Charlie Baker examined 46 options and picked the one it says is the best deal, although not the cheapest: a project dubbed Northern Pass, which entails building a $1.6 billion, 192-mile, 1,092-megawatt transmission line to carry hydropowered electricity from Quebec through New Hampshire, underground through the White Mountains and out to Massachusetts on the other side.
The decision has sparked an uproar from communities that are otherwise supportive of increasing clean energy use in the state. State Attorney General Maura Healey said that she'll investigate the deliberations to ensure they were fair and transparent.
Within a week of the Massachusetts announcement, the fate of the project was thrown into turmoil. New Hampshire's Site Evaluation Committee unanimously rejected the permit for Northern Pass. An appeals process will likely follow, but at the very least this means construction won't start as planned. It could mean the project never becomes a reality.
The outcry shows that a widespread commitment to fighting climate change in no way guarantees agreement on how exactly to achieve that goal. Northern Pass cuts across numerous faultlines within the clean energy sector, not to mention regional politics: climate mitigation versus local conservation; centralization versus decentralization; utilities versus third parties.
The attacks on the project vary in their respective degree of myopia and persuasiveness. At the very least, as the Boston Globe editorial board pointed out, Gov. Baker needs to assure his constituents that the process operated fairly, or he could risk jeopardizing the state's upcoming procurement for 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind if onlookers believe the system is rigged.
That would turn a landmark state energy initiative from cause for hope into a source of distrust and division.
The fishy stuff
Large infrastructure projects always draw criticism, no matter how much clean energy they would be capable of providing. Solar and wind farms face their share of NIMBY shakedowns, even in states that overwhelmingly support such projects. But a key procedural point for Northern Pass transcends the typical land-use complaints.
The proposal was a joint production of Canadian utility Hydro-Quebec and U.S. company Eversource Energy. Meanwhile, the committee deciding among the dozens of proposals included the state's three distribution utilities: National Grid, Unitil and Eversource Energy. They ended up going with Eversource Energy's bid.
Now just because a profit-maximizing corporation bids on a lucrative government contract and also has a hand in choosing itself as the winner doesn't necessarily mean the committee was wrong. It could be true that this concept delivers the best bang for the ratepayers' buck, although without the New Hampshire permit that will be a much harder case to make.
It was the legislature that crafted the role for the state's utilities in deciding on the transmission plan, because they'll have to figure out how to absorb and deliver the huge influx of power. From the public's point of view, though, this looks fishy.
The Boston Globe editorial board called out another factor: "Executives at NStar -- the old name for Eversource -- were big backers of Baker in his failed 2010 gubernatorial bid, when Canadian hydro arose as a campaign issue."
It's possible that greater insight into the decision will clear the air of these sources of skepticism. However, the plan had distinct challenges of its own.
It hadn't secured approval from the Site Evaluation Committee in New Hampshire, where the prospect of wires cutting through the White Mountains has raised considerable local alarm. Project organizers have also promised that the whole thing will be done in time to begin delivery of power in 2020, but projects of this scale have a knack for thwarting timelines and budgets.
The subsequent action of the SEC shows how meaningful that challenge was. The selection committee will have to explain why it didn't weigh the permitting risk more heavily.
Other proposals avoided that kind of opposition by proposing different routes. Additionally, the state could have gone with a portfolio approach of smaller projects, so that if one element came in late, it wouldn't block the entire energy procurement.
Instead, the state bet everything on Northern Pass. If Eversource's appeals process fails, there won't be much time to implement a backup.
Room for debate
Other criticisms of the transmission line deserve some additional scrutiny.
Resistance has been strong among conservationists, but their opposition poses a thorny policy question: How do you weigh limited disruption to a local landscape against the delivery of massive amounts of clean energy?
If Massachusetts is serious about reducing its contribution to climate change, it needs huge amounts of clean power. That could come from thousands of small-scale solar installations, at a cost many times higher than a centralized hydro option (see this tweetstorm from MIT doctoral student Jesse Jenkins on the relative difficulty of a distributed alternative). Or it could come from some source other than Hydro-Quebec.
Either way, landscapes will need to be disrupted, whether for transmission, solar panels or wind turbines.
This tradeoff imposes a local burden (some less-than-picturesque poles and wires) in exchange for a universal good (fewer carbon emissions from Massachusetts). It's understandable that the people bearing that local impact would want to push back.
Then again, how can Massachusetts expect to deploy a meaningful amount of solar capacity if a narrow right-of-way for transmission lines causes such a stir?
The local Sierra Club chapter, which regards climate change as an "existential threat" to humans and other species, came out against the Northern Pass decision.
"Not only will we be contributing to ecological destruction on a massive scale, we will be furthering the exploitation of the indigenous people of Canada,” Massachusetts Chapter Director Emily Norton said in a statement.
It's well documented that Canada's dam-building program greatly harmed a number of First Nations people who lived in the flooded region (The Energy Gang recently recorded an episode exploring that history). And dams absolutely submerge landscapes and forever change them, as seen in the Sierra Club's early loss in Hetch Hetchy.
Those are convincing arguments against new dam construction. But let's say a network of previously built dams exists and has unfathomable amounts of water stored in it, which can be converted into zero-carbon energy and used to offset gas burned in Massachusetts. It's hard to envision a serious climate strategy that refuses existing hydropower because of its original sins.
Some have criticized Massachusetts for buying power out of state rather than using this procurement to fund renewable installations locally. The goal of this procurement was to secure large amounts of clean power, though, not create an economic development program.
More interesting is the debate on centralized versus decentralized solutions. Buying in bulk provides economics of scale; providing the same amount of power with small-scale solar would be vastly more expensive.
That same centralization, though, comes with risks. If the permits fall through, if something fails in the transmission line, if a mechanical issue disables a key hydro facility, Massachusetts will be hard-pressed to make 1,100 clean megawatts appear from somewhere else. Spreading that supply across numerous facilities reduces that risk and eliminates the single point of failure.
States that want to address climate change need to decide how much additional cost and difficulty they will accept to secure a more distributed clean energy future, as opposed to taking the more central and direct routes that come with their own heavy baggage.