The Travails of Northern Pass

Yes, it’s Northern Pass rant and rave time again. It’s been a while since I posted anything about the project nearly everyone here in northern New Hampshire heartily loathes. I won’t go into the gory details of the project as there is plenty of info both pro and con to be found with just a little Google search. But it’s worth taking a look at the current status of the project and some recent developments to see that the road Northern Pass is going down is starting to get more than a bit rocky.

To hear it from the boosters for this project (which unfortunately includes our current governor) the power that Northern Pass would transmit would provide millions of dollars in energy cost savings, revenue for local tax revenues and generate jobs, etc, etc. Governor Sununu believes the project will be a ‘win-win’ situation for New Hampshire (buyers of inexpensive antique bridges in Brooklyn take note). Les Otten, the developer for the Balsams Resort, has accepted 5 million dollars in loans from the Northern Pass project though he insists the money has nothing to do with his enthusiasm for the project.

Many residents in Northern New Hampshire are having none of this, however. The idea of a butt-ugly line of 10 stories tall electrical pylons marching through the countryside (it’s still largely rural up here) has raised ire on many sides. Attempts to get Eversource and Hydro_Quebec to at least bury the lines has been met with stubborn resistance from the corporations, the main argument being it would be too expensive.

Over the past month, some interesting news has come to light. A story surfaced in early March stating that questions were beginning to arise over who was going to actually pay the cost for the NP project. This arose out of a report in the Quebec press stating that Hydro-Quebec was abandoning Northern Pass. Hydro was quick to state it had no intention of dropping NP but did say that they were not footing the bill for the line going through New Hampshire and Massachusetts rate payers would be paying the tab. If that’s the case, it’s likely to go over like the proverbial lead balloon with our neighbors to the south.

A week later NP attorneys approached the attorney for the intervenor towns of Easton, Sugar Hill and Franconia inviting them to name their conditions if the state approves the project. This was immediately shot down by the Easton selectmen stating that since they don’t want the project going through their area there aren’t going to be any conditions. The selectmen in Sugar Hill also refused the idea of any conditions, being of the opinion (likely well justified) that this would give Eversource and Hydro-Quebec the idea they can push them around.

One possible reason for the sudden confusion over who pays for what may stem from the fact that HQ and Eversource may not have renewed its Transmission Service Agreement (TSA) with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), a critical omission if true as the TSA would indicate how Eversource will be paid for building the line. Perhaps scenting blood in the water, another utility company, National Grid, has popped up saying it has a project of its own in mind that would take an alternate route than Northern Pass providing renewable power from Canada into New England.

The underlying issue behind all this sturm und drang is what are we going to do about the extravagant use of electricity not just here in New England but basically everywhere electricity is made use of. The increasingly frantic effort to continue living in the style to which we have become accustomed for so long is becoming more evident with each passing year. An enormous price tag comes attached to all the infrastructure that makes the lights come on when you flick that switch on the wall or press the on-button for your tv or stereo. Hydro-Quebec touts its electrical generation as being ‘renewable’ but ignores the fact that all this renewability is based on non-renewable materials; concrete, turbines, generators, power lines all of which have to be created and maintained. Cheap petroleum made all this achievable back in the 20th century but as oil supplies dwindle and become more expensive to extract and refine, all of the products it gives rise to, are becoming more expensive as well. As the 21st century has gotten underway, a painful wakeup call has begun.

Resistance to this wake-up call is intense. Like anyone having a wild party, nobody likes to be told that they are drinking too much and there’s going to be a nasty hangover the next day, not to mention a big mess to clean up. Partyers just want to keep on partying. Unfortunately it’s no longer possible to do this. Resource shortages are going to increase both in the near and far future. There’s simply no way to avoid it. So what to do? Archdruid John Michael Greer suggested in a posting several years ago to ‘collapse now and avoid the rush’.

The idea behind this is to start voluntarily reducing our energy consumption along with our incessant demand for more and more ‘things’ and begin living in a manner more in keeping with the low energy outputs, and diminished resources that we are going to have to accept as the norm in the future, preferably before circumstances force us to make the change. Yes, it means a slower pace to life and a simpler one. No, it does not mean we are going back to living in caves. The web site Low Tech Magazine frequently publishes articles highlighting a surprising variety of ways to accomplish tasks using simpler more sustainable (and maintainable) technologies. The ingenuity behind these low tech solutions is surprising and heartening.

Compare this with Northern Pass’s heavy-handed corporate politicking and Brobdingnagian technology being touted as the latest and greatest solution to our energy woes. In all likelihood, even if it gets approved, there will still be a fierce fight in store for Eversource attempting to get it built. People are growing more skeptical but what it will take to make us to come to our senses and reject these types of outmoded energy ‘solutions’ is anyone’s guess. As Winston Churchill is said to have remarked; “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”

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.

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Northern Pass – The Saga Continues

Several headlines made the front pages of the local newspapers over the past few weeks. The first; Northern Pass plan suffers a setback, reported that State environmental officials said the application filed by Northern Pass with the state Site Evaluation Committee is incomplete because the developers can’t prove they have the necessary property rights for the project. The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests challenged that Northern Pass lacks the property rights to apply for this permit

Interestingly The New England Power Generators Association, a trade group representing independent power plant generators in the region advanced essentially the same argument in a November 10th letter to the SEC. While one can assume the Association is concerned about potential competition, the Society is more concerned about protecting the natural beauty of New Hampshire and duly filed a lawsuit in the Coos County Superior Court seeking to block the path of the line through a conservation area the society owns in Clarksville, near the Canadian border. Both groups have evoked wails of protest from Northern Pass.

You would think after five or so years of being consistently opposed that the proponents of Northern Pass would finally start listening and give in to the demands to bury the proposed line. At most they have thrown locals a bone by offering to bury about seven and a half miles of the line (out of the 100+ miles it wants to cover). It is perfectly doable to completely bury the line and eliminate the eye-sore towers they actually want to erect. So what’s the source of the resistance by Eversource?

Burynorthernpass blog has been documenting the controversy over Northern Pass and it’s clear money is a major factor, namely shareholder money. At a public hearing in Franconia November 18th, when asked if they made more money going down Routes 116 and 112 rather than Interstate 93, the lack of response was very telling. They all but took the fifth. One has to shake their head in amazement at the poorly concealed contempt these people seem to have for locals.

Eversource has certainly shown itself to be a very poor team player with its customers. Demanding deposits from customers, some of whom are good payers as well as some of who have trouble making ends meet, without bothering to distinguish between the two, is the unmistakable hallmark of a huge bureaucratic corporation. And these people are telling us about the bright new energy future their brobdingnagian project would bring? Excuse us for being a bit skeptical.

While we are on the downslope of peak oil , it’s past time we started looking at another option we don’t hear mentioned much these days. I’m talking of course about conservation. When was the last time you as an individual or business looked at your electrical usage and asked how much electricity do you really and truly need to have? When I drive home from work late in the evening, the road I am on is across the river from a large number of businesses which have a vast array of brilliantly glowing lights, mostly from box stores like Lowes, Home Depot and Walmart as well as a number of car dealerships. How much electricity is this gobbling up? Do they really need to have so many lights on and so late in the evening? When I drive along side streets at night, I see many houses which look like they have every room in the place lit. Now of course Christmas is nearing and the obligatory outside decorative lights are popping up. While they do look very pretty, is it really necessary to have so many? I’ve seen some places lit up like Broadway.

What about the electrical appliances you use? Will it really break your arm to use a spoon to mix with rather than an electrical mixer? Try line drying your laundry instead of using the electric dryer. Use a rake instead of a leaf blower. How about those hair dryers? Strange as it may sound, your hair has the power to dry on its own. How about going to bed a little earlier and turning out the lights half an hour or an hour sooner? You’ll be surprised at how rested you feel the next morning. Last but not least, given that the majority of TV programs are mindless drek, how about turning off the television (and the power strip it’s attached to)? You really won’t be missing anything.

If everyone makes an effort to cut back on electrical usage, utility bills will be reduced and firms like Eversource will have far less leverage when trying to push Northern Pass down our throats.

Northern Pass Update

It didn’t take long for Eversource Energy to ‘revise’ their Northern Pass plan in response to the DOE environmental impact statement. Yesterday they announced plans to bury a 52 mile section passing through the White Mountains National Forest, along state roads from Bethlehem to Bridgewater in addition to an already proposed 8 mile buried section located in the far northern part of New Hampshire. They also scaled back (a little bit) on the wattage from 1200 KW to 1000 KW and will be using new cable technology that can be carried by shorter slimmer towers (about 5 to 10 feet shorter – so, er, I guess that means they will be 9 stories tall instead of 10? … big whoop) and more than 100 steel lattice towers would be changed to allegedly less visible monopoles.

The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests quickly pointed out that if Eversource said they could bury 52 miles without increasing the cost of the project then there is no reason why they can’t bury the whole thing.

These changes proposed by Eversource are part of the ‘Forward NH Plan’ which combines a smaller Northern Pass Plan project with a series of economic development initiatives to make it more enticing to local towns along the path.

Maybe I’m just being paranoid but personally I am suspicious of ‘generous’ offers like this, as there is often the faint whiff of ‘bait and switch’ wafting about them.

More public hearings will be held this October in various towns along the route, so it will be interesting to see if others share my suspicions.
Stay tuned for further developments.

Northern Pass

One of the main topics occupying people’s attention here in northern New Hampshire is the Northern Pass Project. For those who haven’t heard of this, Northern Pass is a partnership between Eversource Energy and HydroQuebec whose goal is to run power lines from Canada down through New Hampshire, beginning in Pittsburg NH, which is near the top of the state and run through Northern Grafton county and the center of NH and ending up in Deerfield. The nature of this project has many people up in arms because this will consist of above ground lines on towers nearly 100 feet in height and in some instances taller. Major eyesore is one of the main complaints about this project as well as the usual concerns about environmental impact. Northern Pass proponents claim this project will add needed electricity for the regional power grid as well as create jobs and tax revenue for the state coffers.

I won’t bother to sum up all the protests about this thing, as a Google search will bring up all the arguments for and against it. The US Department of Energy recently released the draft environmental impact statement for this project. In the time honored manner of bureaucracies it is a 1000 page plus doorstop document exploring potential impact to tourism, alternate routes, and suggestions of having the lines buried rather than aboveground in exhaustive detail. Northern Pass is resistant to burying the lines as this would cost more and the underground line would only be able to carry 1000 kilowatts as opposed to 1200 kilowatts for the above ground lines.

While the negative visual impact is what you hear most about from opponents, there is a more unspoken feeling that this is just the wrong way to go for power generation. It has the flavor of projects that were done back in the mid-20th century, with its enormous scope and architectural ugliness. If this had been proposed back in the nineteen fifties when I was just a tot, it would probably have gone through with barely a hitch and only a murmur of protest.

Things are a lot different now. Those who are familiar with the concept of Peak Oil understand that as oil gets scarcer and delivery of it gets more problematic, the pressure for alternative energy sources increases. But the scale of Northern Pass reflects the outdated thinking that bigger is better without considering that it is also more expensive and harder to maintain. I can remember years ago in 1998, when a winter ice storm struck the northeast coast into Canada, downing about 1000 steel electrical pylons in Quebec and leaving millions of people without power. Repair costs went into the billions. Imagine if something like that happened now.

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Another issue is security. We’ve been hearing about the possibility of cyber attacks on the power grid and terrorists targeting substations and other physical structures in a deliberate attempt to disrupt services. Then there are the usual witless vandals whose main goal is just to smash things at random without considering the consequences. Back in 2012, four young New Hampshire males (two of them juveniles) drove over to Vermont where there was a major electric transmission line running from Quebec to Massachusetts. They had themselves a little drinking party and thought it would be great fun to shoot out the insulators. The damage they did ran about 250,000 dollars just to replace what they destroyed, not including the cost of rerouting power while repairs were done.

With the risk of disaster both natural and man-made, building Northern Pass makes less and less sense. Reducing energy consumption is a far better approach that doesn’t require eyesore metal towers, just a willingness to downsize our dementedly extravagant lifestyle. Our quality of life will not suffer one iota and the quiet natural beauty that I love most about New Hampshire will remain intact.