Amajor transmission line would no longer slice through the White Mountains’ panoramic views under Eversource Energy’s latest version of a $1.4 billion project to transport hydroelectricity into Southern New England from Canada.
The utility, bowing to opposition from environmentalists and criticisms from federal officials, said Tuesday that it would put 60 miles of its 192-mile power line underground, primarily where it passes through the White Mountains area. The company said it would reroute the power line in that region so it follows roads rather than an existing above-ground Eversource right-of-way.
Eversource initially proposed burying only 8 miles of the line near the Canadian border.
Since the Northern Pass project was proposed more than five years ago, it has faced fierce opposition from environmental groups and New Hampshire residents who fear power lines, strung for miles across 85-foot towers, would despoil some of the state’s most scenic areas. Last month, a Department of Energy report detailed the negative visual impacts Eversource’s earlier proposal would have had on the White Mountain National Forest, in particular.
Bill Quinlan, Eversource’s New Hampshire president, said the changes in the project are a response to those concerns. He said the utility, headquartered in Boston and Hartford, still hopes to complete the line running from Pittsburg, N.H., to Deerfield, N.H., by 2019 as scheduled.
“The discussion always starts with the White Mountain National Forest,” Quinlan said of the concerns that critics raised. “By pursuing underground construction in those areas, most of the view issues are addressed.”
But many opponents were unsatisfied. Peter Martin, who lives in Plymouth, N.H., south of the national forest, said the line would now run underground through his town, but he would continue to fight the project until Eversource agrees to place the entire line underground. He said battling Eversource on this issue is vital to the New Hampshire economy, which depends on outdoors-related tourism.
“We didn’t sign on just to protect our own turf,” Martin said. “This is about all of us.”
The Appalachian Mountain Club, a Boston environmental and recreational group, also issued a statement criticizing Eversource for not coming up with a plan to bury the entire line.
But New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan, who has been an outspoken critic of Northern Pass, said in a statement that she was encouraged by Eversource’s changes and called the new route an improvement over the previous plan.
“That process of listening — and making further improvements — must continue,” Hassan said.
Eversource’s new route still needs approval from the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee and the US Department of Energy.
Northern Pass is one of several power lines under consideration that would bring hydropower from Canada into Southern New England, and Eversource is in a race with other developers to complete the projects because it’s unclear if there’s enough demand for all of them.
For example, developer TDI New England wants to build a 154-mile line from Canada, through Vermont, and that entire line would be under Lake Champlain or otherwise underground.
“It seemed like a pretty natural step for [Eversource] to at least bury [the line] in some of the more controversial areas, particularly with the competition,” said Peter Shattuck, director of the Massachusetts office of the Acadia Center, an environmental advocacy group. “[But] we can get power through Northern New England with fewer impacts by avoiding above-ground power lines and towers.”
The Northern Pass project would be financed through a transmission agreement with Hydro-Quebec, the government-owned utility that operates massive hydropower dams in Canada, Quinlan said.
In addition to changes in the route, Eversource has scaled back the line’s capacity to 1,000 megawatts — enough to provide power for up to 1 million homes — from 1,200 megawatts, as a way to offset the costs of burying about one-third of the line.
Eversource also pledged to create an additional $200 million fund to help with clean energy and economic development in New Hampshire over 20 years. The utility also recently reached an agreement with Hydro-Quebec to set aside 10 percent of the power on the line for use in New Hampshire, ensuring at least some of the electricity benefits residents and businesses in the state.
Officials in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut are seeking to increase access to Canadian hydroelectricity as a way to offset the loss of power production from closing coal and nuclear plants while reducing greenhouse gases created by burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas.
Governor Charlie Baker filed a bill last month aimed at spurring transmission projects that could bring up to 2,400 megawatts of hydroelectric power — enough for more than 2 million homes — into Massachusetts, through transmission lines such as those proposed by Eversource and TDI.
Baker’s bill is one of many approaches to the region’s pressing energy issues, including relatively high prices, likely to be debated in the Massachusetts State House this fall. Other potential solutions include measures aimed at stimulating offshore wind development, new gas pipelines, and more solar panels.