The rolling hills of northern New Hampshire are among the treasures of New England, and the prospect of an elevated power line cutting across the face of these ranges instinctively seems distressing. This sort of fear — of the destruction of natural beauty as well as the disruption to the local tourism industry due to this damage — has characterized the debate surrounding Northern Pass, a high-voltage transmission line being built by Northeast Utilities that will carry 1,200 megawatts of Canadian hydropower to the New England grid. The proposed route runs the length of New Hampshire, and much of the northernmost 40 miles will travel through forestland. It is understandable that the people of New Hampshire are concerned.
Yet there is more to this issue than just power lines crossing through northern forests. In a June report issued by the New England ISO — the regional body that oversees the New England power grid — there are 28 decades-old coal and oil power plants currently on line that are expected to be retired by 2020. Combined, these plants produce over 8,000 megawatts of power that will need to be replaced. Some of these stations will probably be converted to natural gas facilities, but that would only further concerns about New England’s overreliance on a single fuel source. As of 2011, over half of all of the region’s current power comes from natural gas, which is relatively difficult to transport and nearly impossible to store at power plants. This situation also leaves New England dangerously susceptible to price changes. In an ideal world, solar and wind power would be able to fill this impending gap, but the technology to deliver such energy on the necessary scale isn’t yet economically feasible. The development of these clean energy technologies should be strongly encouraged, but it isn’t a good reason to reject Canadian hydropower.
The Conservation Law Foundation, one of the groups protesting the project, has raised concerns over the environmental impacts of hydropower, noting that forests are destroyed to create the reservoirs that power hydroelectric dams. In response, Northeast Utilities argues that all the power to be transmitted via the Northern Pass project is already being generated by existing dams. But this seems disingenuous when Hydro-Quebec, the utility company that would lease the Northern Pass line, is currently building a massive, four-dam complex on the Romaine River in Canada.
Even so, over the lifespan of the dam, hydropower adds much less CO2 to the environment than fossil fuels, and the Northern Pass project will help New England reduce its carbon footprint significantly — especially if it’s supplemented by other renewables.
There is also concern that, under pressure from Northeast Utilities, Massachusetts will follow Connecticut’s example and count large-scale hydroelectric power toward the state’s renewable-energy portfolio standard — one of the mechanisms by which Massachusetts encourages the use of green energy sources. Allowing this to happen would seriously undercut the growth of the Commonwealth’s burgeoning wind and solar sectors, and threaten Massachusetts’ long-term energy goals. But Canadian hydropower, if treated by lawmakers the same way as coal or natural gas, could reduce the state’s carbon footprint without crowding out solar and wind.
Northeast Utilities left a bad first impression with its heavy-handed efforts to sell its initial plan to New Hampshirites, and this has forced the company to play two years of expensive damage control, including drawing an entirely new route through northern New Hampshire that brings the cost of the project to $1.4 billion. But no amount of bad public relations changes the fact that New England needs new energy sources soon, and Northern Pass’s offer of relatively green, relatively cheap Canadian hydropower is one of the best available options. It would be a mistake not to pursue it.