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As Mass. Debates Northern Pass Deal, Sununu Says Project Was 'Railroaded'

Thomas Gehrke
Flickr Creative Commons
Credit Thomas Gehrke / Flickr Creative Commons
Flickr Creative Commons

Officials in Massachusetts are still debating the future of a big renewable energy contract for their state.

That’s after their initial pick, Northern Pass, hit a major roadblock in New Hampshire – though the transmission proposal still has support from Gov. Chris Sununu.

The Commonwealth picked Eversource's Northern Pass plan last month for a long-term contract that must start in 2020. That choice was thrown into limbo a week later, when New Hampshire’s Site Evaluation Committee denied the project its final permit.

Eversource plans to appeal that decision, but the process could take months – and Sununu told radio station WTSN on Friday he wasn't sure they'd have time to meet Massachusetts' deadline.

“Was it legal? Eh, maybe. I’m not even sure about that – I’m not a lawyer,” Sununu said of the SEC’s surprise early vote. “But … when you look at what the factors were that they considered in taking that vote, they just couldn’t be more wrong.”

Sununu said Northern Pass had been “shortcut” and “railroaded.”  

“I mean, this was clearly a pre-staged decision, I think,” he told WTSN.

The SEC comprises representatives from various state agencies, as well as the Public Utilities Commission and the public. Some are Sununu appointees; others date to previous administrations.

To grant Northern Pass a building permit, the group had to find it passed four tests. They agreed it passed the first, regarding financial stability. But they didn’t think it could pass the second, which deals with effects on development, land use and local planning efforts along the project’s route.

After that discussion, three days into the 12 allotted for deliberations, the SEC voted unanimously to deny Northern Pass a permit.

“When you look at that process, that just screams, you know, something’s wrong,” Sununu told WTSN. “And as governor, you know, I’m going to do what I can to fix it.”

His office didn’t offer specifics as to what that would entail.

"The people of New Hampshire must have certainty that the regulatory framework by which we site large-scale energy infrastructure projects is transparent. Applicants cannot predict the outcome, but they should be able to have confidence in the process," Sununu told NHPR in a statement Monday. "I will continue to explore ways to restore confidence in our system." 

Meanwhile, Massachusetts’ main electric companies – Eversource, National Grid and Unitil – missed their first deadline to decide if Northern Pass is still viable.

Asked for comment Monday, spokespeople for all three utilities said only that they’re continuing to work through the process with Massachusetts’ Department of Energy Resources.

That department now says they'll know more on Friday.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is also watching closely. Her office has been asked to make sure Eversource played a fair role in the initial decision to contract with Northern Pass.

“It is the job of the evaluation committee, not the utilities alone, to determine next steps and the viability of Northern Pass,” AG spokeswoman Chloe Gotsis told NHPR. “It is unclear why the evaluation team was unable to move forward [last] week when all parties have recognized the importance of swift action. Our office continues to call on the evaluation team to resolve this issue as quickly as possible.”

If that team ultimately decides to move away from Northern Pass, they’d have more than 40 other options to make up the 1,200 megawatts of energy they’re seeking.

Those include other big transmission line proposals in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and Southern New England – some fueled by Canadian hydropower like Northern Pass, others by Canadian wind.

Smaller solar, wind and hydro developments are also on the table – and with Northern Pass on the rocks, they're all vying for Massachusetts’ favor once again.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott wrote to Bay State regulators last week, renewing his support for a plan to run a Canadian hydro-powered transmission line under Lake Champlain. Officials say the project, from developer TDI, is essentially fully permitted.

And in New Hampshire, some state legislators have asked Sununu to lend his support to another proposal close to home – Granite State Power Link, from National Grid.

It would carry Canadian wind power on new transmission lines in Vermont and existing lines in New Hampshire, and is expected to go before the state Site Evaluation Committee by summer.

Sununu's office has so far not commented on the legislators' request, except to say they look forward to reviewing it. 

Copyright 2021 New Hampshire Public Radio. To see more, visit New Hampshire Public Radio.

Annie Ropeik joined NHPR’s reporting team in 2017, following stints with public radio stations and collaborations across the country. She has reported everywhere from fishing boats, island villages and cargo terminals in Alaska, to cornfields, factories and Superfund sites in the Midwest.
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