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Editorial: New Route for Northern Pass; Better But Not Good Enough

The developers of Northern Pass returned the other week with a new route that certainly represents an improvement over the previous one. But what they really need to get the project on track is a new attitude — one that recognizes that their only hope of success lies in working with state and local officials to minimize the project’s impact on New Hampshire.

Northern Pass is a joint project of Northeast Utilities, Public Service of New Hampshire and Hydro-Quebec to supply 1,200 megawatts of electricity produced by massive hydropower dams in Quebec to southern New England. Much of the 187-mile route goes through New Hampshire and would follow existing transmission lines, but a new 40-mile corridor through northern New Hampshire is needed. Because the transmission infrastructure involves stringing lines along prominent towers and because the new route would pass through a remote region that is economically dependent on its scenic landscape, the proposal touched off fierce, widespread resistance.

Northern Pass has tried to buy its way out of the problem. It purchased properties along its previously proposed route — paying as much as $4 million for 20 acres in Stewartstown — and apparently hoped that it could figure out some way to traverse the Connecticut Lakes conservation area, a place that is not only spectacularly beautiful but also protected by an easement.

It couldn’t, and project officials acknowledged as much in the new route they proposed, which would skirt the protected area and bury the line under the Connecticut River and under state and local roads in Stewartstown and Clarksville. That is significant because the developers had resisted calls to bury the transmission lines, maintaining that the terrain and expense prohibited underground transmission.

The response to the new route was predictable: Most recognized it as an improvement but not enough of one. Only eight of the route’s 187 miles would be buried.

“I continue to believe that project officials must more fully explore options for burying more of the lines,” said New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan.

Also noteworthy in the reaction to the new route was the clear sense that there hasn’t been much communication between Northern Pass and state and local officials. State transportation officials, who presumably need to be consulted about Northern Pass’ plans to bury lines under state roads, contradicted Northern Pass officials’ statements and said that the recent announcement was the first they had heard of the new plan. Nor had discussions been held with town officials. Hardly a promising strategy for building support.

The lack of communication probably has much to do with the cat-and-mouse game going on between the developers and opponents. When it became clear that Northern Pass would not be greeted with open arms, the developers responded by trying to buy safe passage via land acquisition. To counter that effort, opponents such as the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests went about purchasing easements that prohibited the use of parcels for transmission lines.

Northern Pass needs to realize that getting New Hampshire to embrace — or more likely, tolerate — this project is going to be a tough sell. Whatever benefits the project offers to the state — and most are temporary or indirect — are more than offset in many residents’ minds by the potential for environmental damage or visual desecration. The developers need to work with state and local officials to cooperatively design a project that will minimize the damage. Now that Northern Pass officials have acknowledged that transmission lines can be buried, that’s plausible, because the project’s most obvious threat — its impact on the landscape — can be mitigated. Perhaps it’s not necessary to bury the entire line, but certainly more than 8 miles, and definitely in areas where ruining the view is simply unacceptable. And now that Northern Pass has abandoned its strategy of buying its way through northern New Hampshire, the need for stealth has disappeared.

That leaves the question of expense. Burying just 8 miles of line will add $100 million to the $1.2 billion project, according to Gary Long, president of PSNH. That’s a lot of money, but only 21/2 times what Northern Pass spent acquiring property it now will not be using. More to the point, this is infrastructure that’s going to move a considerable amount of energy for the foreseeable future. It’s hard to believe that investing the money to do it right won’t eventually prove profitable, although perhaps at lower margins than developers had hoped. But it’s that, or the likelihood of nothing.