William Quinlan, president of Eversource NH, is pictured after testifying at the adjudicative hearings in Concord. (Nancy West photo)
The Public Utilities Commission has approved an agreement allowing Eversource to lease transmission rights-of-way to Northern Pass if the controversial application to build a 192-mile powerline from Pittsburg to Deerfield that was recently denied ends up winning on appeal.
The PUC’s lease order is conditioned on the Site Evaluation Committee issuing the project its necessary construction permit. According to an Eversource news release, Northern Pass Transmission is preparing to file a motion to reopen the SEC deliberations that ended in a surprise, unanimous 7 to 0 vote against the project on Feb. 1.
Arthur Cunningham, an attorney representing a small business in the case, said if Northern Pass is ultimately approved, the lease agreement could cause a portion of the construction costs to be borne by ratepayers, which Eversource has insisted won’t happen.
The PUC order also approved a settlement agreement which provides that Northern Pass Transmission will pay approximately $15 million over the term of the 40-year lease to fund “non-wire” alternatives and renewable energy projects to benefit NH customers.
“In its decision, the NHPUC found that the lease agreement was ‘in the public good’ and provides significant customer benefits,” the Eversource release says.
“The benefits Northern Pass will deliver to New Hampshire are significant, and today’s approval by the NHPUC is further confirmation that the project is in the public interest,” says Eversource NH President Bill Quinlan.
The order didn’t say the project itself is in the public good, which is one of four legal requirements for approving it. And it made clear that it wasn’t approving the project, that the siting decision is within the jurisdiction of the Site Evaluation Committee.
The PUC order states, “We consider this provision to provide a benefit directly to New Hampshire ratepayers, and find that the creation of this benefit is in the public good.”
The order made clear, too, that it wasn’t a final determination of property rights.
May be meaningless
If Northern Pass is unsuccessful in seeking to reopen deliberations or in appealing before the state Supreme Court, then Monday’s PUC ruling is meaningless, according to Cunningham.
“If the SEC decision gets reversed on appeal, then this is a very important decision,” Cunningham says.
Cunningham said the existing transmission corridor was intended to bring power to the North Country almost a century ago and people literally gave away their property because they wanted electricity.
The easements were granted in the late 1920s with more granted right after World War II, he says.
“Those easements were never intended to be used like this, never,” Cunningham says.
The PUC hearing was based on a settlement agreement between Eversource, the PUC staff and the Office of the Consumer Advocate, he said. Cunningham and other intervenors objected to the agreement.
“My voice was lost in the wind,” Cunningham says.
The order was based on the terms of the lease and rent to be paid, he says.
No one took into consideration what could happen down the road if Northern Pass transfers the rights-of-way back to PSNH and the alternating current portion of the line from Franklin to Deerfield becomes a reliability project, he says.
“Of course it’s a possibility. I’ve raised that issue all along and nobody has analyzed it.
“I believe Eversource is getting huge pressure from Hydro-Quebec over the cost and one way they could get out from under the cost is to make this a reliability project so they could load the cost onto ratepayers,” Cunningham says
It would require a decision from ISO-NE, which is responsible for making sure New England’s energy needs are met, but definitely a possibility, he says.
“Keep in mind that there is language in the Transmission Service Agreement that the AC portion can be transferred back to PSNH and then costs could be passed back to ratepayers,” Cunningham says.
Northern Pass has said all along that ratepayers won’t have to pay for the project.
The three-member PUC panel approved the lease. Two of them, Chairman Martin Honigberg and Kathryn Bailey, voted in their separate role as members of the SEC, to deny the Northern Pass project with five other members making it unanimous.
Massachusetts officials say they will have more information Friday as to how to proceed after Northern Pass’ application was denied. Northern Pass had been named the sole bidder out of 46 to negotiate a major clean energy project with the Bay State.
Mass. Attorney General Maura Healey has called for transparency in the process because Eversource helped select the winning bid.
Also on Monday, Vermont Electric Power Company (VELCO) and National Grid’s GridAmerica Holdings, Inc. announced an agreement to support Northern Pass rival project Granite State Power Link to transmit Canadian wind power to New England.
Just last week, another project – this one also partnering with Hydro-Quebec – TDI-NE also said it was ready to help Massachusetts’s clean energy goals with its fully permitted project that will be buried underground in Vermont and through Lake Champlain.
Nancy West is executive editor of InDepthNH.org, the nonprofit watchdog news website published by the NH Center for Public Interest Journalism.