NORTHERN PASS, the $1.6 billion project selected by Massachusetts last week to bring a massive amount of hydro-electricity into New England from Quebec, failed to win a key permit from New Hampshire on Thursday.
The seven members of the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee concluded that Northern Pass failed to meet one of the four criteria needed for approval (the agency said the project would negatively impact property values, tourism, and land use) and then voted unanimously to deny a permit to the project. Both votes followed an informal straw poll of the seven members.
The stunning action – a formal decision was not required until February 23 – throws the clean energy procurement of Massachusetts into disarray. Baker administration officials had expressed confidence the project would win approval from the Site Evaluation Committee, but now Northern Pass’s future is far from certain.
A key reason Massachusetts chose Northern Pass is because project officials insisted they could start construction later this year and finish in 2020, nearly two years ahead of most of its rivals. Without the permit from New Hampshire, however, the project cannot get off the ground.
A spokesman for Northern Pass said project officials are “shocked and outraged” by the decision and vowed to reverse the vote.
“The process failed to comply with New Hampshire law and did not reflect the substantial evidence on the record,” Martin Murray said in an emailed statement. “As a result, the most viable near-term solution to the region’s energy challenges, as well as $3 billion of [New Hampshire] job, tax, and other benefits, are now in jeopardy. Clearly, the SEC process is broken and this decision sends a chilling message to any energy project contemplating development in the Granite State. We will be seeking reconsideration of the SEC’s decision, as well as reviewing all options for moving this critical clean energy project forward.”
Greg Cunningham, a vice president at the Conservation Law Foundation, which opposes Northern Pass, said he was elated with the decision. He said Massachusetts officials should select another project to supply the state with clean power.
“My sense is the Commonwealth has a list, a ranking of the projects. I think the Commonwealth should review the list and choose the second-best project on it,” he said.
Northern Pass is a partnership between Eversource Energy, which wants to build a transmission line from the Canadian border down through New Hampshire, and Hydro-Quebec, which is supplying the electricity. Massachusetts selected the project to deliver 9.45 million megawatt hours of energy, which represents between 15 and 20 percent of the Bay State’s annual electricity consumption. The Massachusetts selection team consisted of Baker administration officials and executives from the state’s three utilities, including Eversource Energy.
When Massachusetts awarded the contract to Northern Pass last week, the president of Eversource in New Hampshire said he was very confident the project would win approval from the Site Evaluation Committee. Matthew Beaton, Gov. Charlie Baker’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs, also said he was confident.
A spokesman for Beaton said the administration is taking a wait-and-see approach before moving on from its commitment to the project and the state’s clean energy goals.
“Massachusetts’ recently selected clean energy procurement project remains conditional on necessary siting approvals and [the office of Energy and Environmental Affairs] will continue to monitor and evaluate developments in New Hampshire as the administration works to ensure a clean and affordable energy future that progresses toward greenhouse gas emissions reductions,” Peter Lorenz, a spokesman for the office, said in a statement.
Jay Gonzalez, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, said the decision “underscores what an incredibly bad decision Charlie Baker’s administration made in giving away the state’s largest renewable energy procurement to Eversource.”
“Just one week after the Baker administration hand-picked Eversource’s Northern Pass as the sole winner of the procurement, passing over 45 other proposals, a New Hampshire board voted unanimously to shut the project down,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “This is a clear example of Governor Baker rewarding wealthy donors and putting his own political and financial interests ahead of the people of Massachusetts.”
Dan Dolan, president of New England Power Generators Association which had opposed the project, said Northern Pass was a “fundamentally flawed project” that got as far as it got only because of its affiliation with Eversource and generous subsidies from Massachusetts.
“The market case for Northern Pass has collapsed,” Dolan said. “I don’t see how Massachusetts relies on it moving forward.”
The Manchester, N.H., Chamber of Commerce, one of the few business groups in the Granite State to support the project, decried the decision as “shocking and disappointing.”
“NH faces serious energy challenges and we can’t afford to shut ourselves off from solutions like Northern Pass that will lower energy costs while also creating jobs and new tax revenue,” Michael Skelton, president and CEO of the chamber, said in a statement. “This decision will have a chilling effect on energy infrastructure development in NH for the foreseeable future and I’m very concerned with the impact it will have on our economy. Our energy challenges are not going away.”
The Site Evaluation Committee must now issue a written decision based on the vote and project officials have 30 days after that to seek a rehearing. If they are denied the hearing – a likelihood given the unanimous vote – they then have 10 days to file an appeal, which goes directly to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
Attorney General Maura Healey said the decision raises “serious questions” about the timetable of having the project operational by 2020 and should give the state pause in deciding the next step.
“At a minimum, it appears today’s development requires reevaluation of the selection of Northern Pass,” Healey spokeswoman Chloe Gotsis said in an email. “The Attorney General’s Office remains committed to an open and transparent review and we will be following this closely.”