Putting The Fix In

The Northern Pass Project is still trying to steamroll its way through New Hampshire and now the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing have become a little more overt. Last month Les Otten, the Maine developer trying to revive the Great White Elephant of the North known as the Balsams Resort accepted a ‘no strings attached’ $2 million dollar ‘investment’ from Eversource to help fund his project. Now (no big surprise) Mr. Otten is in favor of the Northern Pass project. Shocker, huh? We probably shouldn’t be too surprised, though. Eversource and their Hydro-Quebec corporate associates haven’t been noted for their consideration of the feelings of locals when it comes to projects that (in their minds anyway) have the potential for big bucks (for them, not us) so greasing local palms is just business as usual for them.

Still, you have to shake your head in amazement at the strong arm tactics used recently on the North Country Chamber of Commerce. Of course Mr Otten denies that he threatened to back out if members didn’t cave in to the demands of himself and his ‘supporters’. Instead he insists that Northern Pass opponents ‘hijacked’ the board and were responsible for the Commerce’s stance. Judging from the comments sections on the news stories, nobody really buys this.

The depressed economy of the north country with the loss of the paper mills makes people desperate to improve the job situation for the area and as a result be vulnerable to these sorts of tactics. But anyone who thinks that the Balsams, a relic of an earlier era, can somehow be magically revived and bring back the good times, is living in a dream world. The shaky economy, dwindling cheap oil supplies, and the spectre of global economic contraction lurking in the wings ensures that this project of Mr. Otten’s will in all likelihood never be finished or once built be a money pit that will relentlessly devour any funds poured into it and wind up getting abandoned to bankruptcy leaving locals worse off than they were before. The scandal that has just broken over the the EB-5 VISA Program in Vermont should provide readers a bitter cautionary tale.

It’s much the same for Northern Pass. Eversource stubbornly insists it’s not economical to bury the lines, which would eliminate much of the opposition to the project. This is an odd argument if HydroQuebec is the profitable entity it presents itself as being. But maybe it wouldn’t be so odd if you could manage to look behind the curtain. Like the Wizard, there is likely a good deal of humbug involved. Northern Pass is not the economic salvation its advocates insist it is. Either above or below ground it is vulnerable. As power companies everywhere are enamored of high tech connectivity, the power lines will be part of a national grid that has already shown itself disturbingly accessible to international hacking. Why anyone would want to build something that any Iranian or Chinese cyberthug could and probably will at some point trash is beyond me. Oh, and by the way, does anyone know what a Carrington Event is?

People don’t like to think about how fragile most if not all of the high technology we are so dependent on actually is. Instead they forge ahead, building projects that are resource intensive, prodigiously expensive, increasingly complex and hard to maintain, with seemingly little thought given to what might happen when a bump in the road comes along. The Disney movie Mousehunt has a scene where the two dimwitted house owners try to catch a pesky mouse by setting up a room full of traps only to discover they have ‘painted’ themselves into a corner with predictable results. In real life the consequences of ‘painting’ ourselves into a technological corner might not be so hilarious.

HydroQuebec no doubt is addressing security and adding redundancy to protect against disaster but none of this will come cheap. Are we really protected if the backup systems are themselves composed of vulnerable high tech? How sustainable is it really if there is a perpetual struggle to guard against grid collapse and hack attacks?

Instead of wasting money constructing ever larger and more complex versions of an already difficult to maintain power generation system, we need to look at decentralizing and downsizing power demands, simplifying our lifestyles. Let’s pull the plug on a lot of gizmos that, quite frankly, we don’t need in order to have comfortable lives. As long as we struggle to hang onto an unsustainable way of life, Mr Otten and allies will be able to arm twist their way into pushing through the money pit called Northern Pass.