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Concord, N.H. - The coming year will bring critical deadlines and key developments in a private company's plan to run electrical transmission lines from Canada through New Hampshire.
What it will not provide is any letup in the arguments on both sides of the power proposal.
Northeast Utilities' $1.4 billion Northern Pass would carry 1,200 megawatts of power produced by Hydro-Quebec through 187 miles of lines in New Hampshire. That's enough energy to power 1.2 million homes, and it would shore up a New England energy market showing signs of volatility.
The project is expected to take three years to finish. Backers say $300 million a year would flow into the state and some 1,200 construction jobs would be created through regions hard hit by the economic downturn and closure of several paper mills.
Opponents, though, worry that the transmission lines would forever scar the natural beauty of the state, particularly the White Mountains, and cut into tourism revenues as it runs south from Pittsburgh to Deerfield.
They want to see the lines buried, something Northern Pass agreed to do for an 8-mile stretch in the North Country.
"Here's where I think Northern Pass is today," said Jack Savage, spokesman for the Society for the Preservation of New Hampshire Forests. "I would say the project is in jeopardy as long as Northern Pass and Hydro-Quebec refuse to look at more undergrounding of the proposed line."
The past year ended with the group that runs New England's power grid making the determination that Northern Pass could safely and reliably connect to the existing power system. After a three-year review, ISO New England announced Dec. 31 that it had approved the interconnection application, meaning Northeast Utilities can continue pursuing the project. The ISO decision also requires the project to submit more detailed plans.
That decision shocked Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association and part of the reliability committee that did not secure the needed two-thirds vote to support the interconnection application. He said the ISO has never overruled the committee in 15 years and noted the Northern Pass is not explicitly related to grid reliability but is an elective project.
"We're pro-energy infrastructure," he said. "We just want it done on a level playing field."
Still to come is a decision by the U.S. Department of Energy on whether to permit the project and a state Site Evaluation Committee review that would be the final word. A spokesman for Northern Pass said a DOE decision is expected by midyear, and the state's nine-month SEC review should begin shortly thereafter.
"It will include public hearings and a tremendous opportunity for input," spokesman Mike Skelton said. "At the end of that nine-month window, that's really when you have the construction permit in hand, and you can put a shovel in the ground."
The goal is to begin construction in 2015 and be online in 2017, Skelton said.
Northeast Utilities will continue the outreach that ramped up in 2013, including paid advertising and another series of community meetings. Lauren Collins, a spokeswoman for Northern Pass, said the outreach, particularly the meetings, is aimed at answering the project's critics. She did not disclose how much would be spent on advertising.
"For people who are objective and want facts, once they get that, it's very hard to dispute the benefits of this project," she said. "We are happy to answer people's questions."
There are potential legislative hurdles facing the project though the sides debate just how high those hurdles might be. The House Science, Technology and Energy Committee is pushing a bill that would direct the SEC to give preference to privately funded energy projects if they bury their transmission lines.
Skelton and Collins believe the legislation is dead on arrival, brought by a small group of legislators that oppose the project.
"I think the legislature recognizes the danger of cherry-picking winners and losers through mandates," Skelton said. "Many of these proposals come back year after year."
Opponents like Savage see momentum toward either buried lines or the recognition of a third option: no new lines at all.
"We'll continue to monitor the regulatory process, continue to work with people in the legislature," he said. "The goal is to put the state in the position of making a decision in projects like these that are best for the state, not best for Northern Pass or for Hydro-Quebec."