A deeply controversial transmission line proposed to carry hydropower from Canada to Southern New England will now take a more easterly and remote path, developers announced Thursday.
The new Northern Pass route comes on the heels of a highly unusual campaign by environmentalists to block the project by buying land and property rights in Northern New Hampshire that its developers needed to build upon. Now, the originally proposed route of the project’s northernmost section has largely been abandoned, the height of some towers lowered, and developers have promised to place nearly eight miles of the line beneath state and local roadways.
“We have worked hard to develop a new proposal that is better for New Hampshire and responsive to feedback we’ve received,’’ said Gary Long, president of Public Service of New Hampshire, a subsidiary of Northern Pass’s parent company, Northeast Utilities.
Northern Pass had previously rejected suggestions to bury the lines or place them along highways, saying it would be too expensive and might be technically impossible. The underground portion is the primary reason the price tag of the project has grown by $200 million, to $1.4 billion, Long said.
Environmentalists and some residents were unpersuaded by the announcement, saying much of the transmission corridor would still be a visual blight on the region and could ultimately harm residents economically.
“We are very happy they discovered the shovel, but if you can figure out how to bury eight miles, you can figure out how to bury 180,’’ said Jack Savage, spokesman for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which spearheaded the land-buying campaign. The group has long advocated for much of the line to be buried or moved to preserve the region’s unbroken vista of rolling hills, forests, and farms.
The 187-mile long project from the Quebec border to Deerfield, N.H., is being proposed by Northeast Utilities in partnership with Hydro-Quebec. Most of it — 147 miles — will be built on an existing right of way owned by Public Service.
That right of way includes a 10-mile swath through the White Mountain National Forest, west of Franconia Notch and Cannon Mountain. Long said Thursday the company has been able to lower tower heights in that area from a maximum of 135 feet to a more common height of 85 to 95 feet.
The company and the federal Department of Energy will conduct their own, separate, visual impact assessments of the project.
While that piece of the project has its critics, most of the opposition has focused on the project’s 40 northernmost miles, for which no right of way existed. The debate is so poisonous that scores of landowners have erected orange signs — some profane — along roads near the intended route, telling Northern Pass to go away.
“As we move forward, I’m asking those who have previously opposed this project to be open to working with us to address concerns,” Long said.
The news comes as New England undergoes an energy shift with a growing supply of domestic natural gas replacing coal and oil; today, gas generates about 34 percent of the region’s electricity and half of the electricity in Massachusetts.
Last week, Massachusetts energy officials detailed a plan to bring more hydropower into the region, working with Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
Yet states vary on whether large hydro should be eligible for lucrative renewable tax credits, in part because of the enormous areas of forests that are submerged to create hydro power. The forests die, releasing vast amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Massachusetts has consistently said it would not give large hydro such renewable credits, although Connecticut earlier this month adopted a law that allows utilities, in certain cases, to count electricity purchased from large-scale
hydropower projects toward meeting the state’s aggressive clean energy goals.
The Northern Pass project still has numerous hurdles before being built. It still needs a permit from President Obama to cross from Canada to the United States, as well as permits in New Hampshire. The company hopes to have the line operating by 2017.
Environmental groups and residents said they still needed to examine the project’s new details. Their list of longstanding complaints about the project are numerous: They say that it is not clear the project will save consumers money and that there is no guarantee the hydropower will displace dirtier forms of energy, such as coal. They dispute the calculations Northern Pass uses to contend that hydropower releases little or no carbon dioxide.
“The new route has the same flaws that have doomed the project to date, primarily the lack of consideration for the communities that would unnecessarily bear all of the burden of the project and none of the benefit,’’ said N. Jonathan Peress, vice president and director of Clean Energy & Climate Change for Conservation Law Foundation.