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Northern Pass stays alive, but state has a backup plan for hydropower

Michael Casey/Associated Press/File

The $1.6 billion Northern Pass project was set to bring hydropower from Canada by creating a transmission line through New Hampshire for customers in southern New England. A New Hampshire state commission rejected a crucial permit for the project on Feb. 1, leaving utility officials scrambling to alter the proposal or find a backup.

By Jon Chesto Globe Staff 

Massachusetts utilities and state energy officials have picked a backup plan to bring clean power into the state from Canada, while still giving a controversial transmission project more time to overcome objections in neighboring New Hampshire.

The alternative route is a 148-mile transmission project known as the New England Clean Energy Connect that would be built by Central Maine Power Co. and its parent, Avangrid, in Maine.

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The state’s three big electric utilities are required by law to increase their purchases of clean power. In late January, a team representing the utilities picked a project that would import around 1,100 megawatts of electricity from Hydro-Quebec through a transmission project known as Northern Pass.

But on Feb. 1, the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee rejected a crucial permit for the 192-mile long Northern Pass. On Friday, state officials said Northern Pass executives have until March 27 to determine whether the transmission project can overcome its opposition in New Hampshire.

Eversource Energy owns the $1.6 billion Northern Pass project, and is also one of the utilities buying the clean power from Hydro-Quebec.

The moves Friday by the Baker administration essentially keep doors open for both projects, Northern Pass and New England Clean Energy Connect.

“The Baker-Polito Administration is pleased that with today’s announcement the Commonwealth is progressing toward securing the largest amount of renewable energy in Massachusetts’ history,” spokesman Peter Lorenz said in a statement.

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Eversource is represented on the evaluation team of utility companies that are collectively negotiating contracts for the big clean energy purchase. Separately, Eversource’s promise that Northern Pass could be finished by the end of 2020 was cited as a reason it was initially chosen in January.

The subsequent permit denial in New Hampshire has thrown that timeline into question.

Eversource officials say they can make a strong legal argument to get the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee to reconsider its project, and have a little over a month to prove they can pull it off.

Eversource officials said Friday they appreciate the flexibility being offered by the Baker administration and the other utilities involved in the bidding process, National Grid and Unitil. The decision, Eversource said, strikes a sensible balance by continuing negotiations on Northern Pass while having a backup plan take shape.

The New England Clean Energy Connect comes in at a smaller cost than Northern Pass — $950 million — but would be finished in 2022. The line would run from the Canadian border in western Maine down to a connection point in Lewiston.

Importantly, most of the line would run through existing utility rights-of-way, which could lessen the kind of opposition from neighbors that undermined Northern Pass in New Hampshire.

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“We believe the NECEC is a cost-effective response to Massachusetts’ needs,” Central Maine Power chief executive Doug Herling said in a statement. “Given our experience building projects of greater scale and complexity here in our home state, we’re confident we can meet our commitments to the Commonwealth.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com.