Battle Lines | The Northern Pass Energy Project
Which is how I found myself sitting across from Mayor Merrifield and City Manager Elizabeth Dragon, in a small conference room in Franklin’s city hall. Just a few doors up the street, the frustrated owner of that gas-powered leaf blower was standing on the sidewalk and smoking a cigarette, considering his next move. In an hour, City Hall would be host to a “scoping meeting,” during which U.S. Department of Energy officials would take public comments regarding The Northern Pass. (Because the project would cross an international border, a presidential permit is required; hence the involvement of the DOE.) The evening before, a similar meeting in the town of Pembroke had drawn 400 citizens; of the 55 speakers, 53 voiced opposition, one expressed neutrality, and one spoke in favor of the project.
Still, Mayor Merrifield was keen to point out that Franklin wouldn’t be the only community that would benefit from the transmission lines.
“Yes, we’re definitely the big winner in terms of the property-tax windfall, but we’re still going to get less than a quarter of what goes to the entire state,” he told me. Elizabeth Dragon nodded her head. The mayor continued: “And remember, we’re looking at 1,200 jobs statewide during the construction phase.”
Dragon broke in: “People say, ‘Oh, but those jobs are temporary.'” She was right; that was exactly what people were saying. “But I say, ‘Temporary is better than no job.'” She looked at me almost defiantly, as if daring me to contradict her. “Our businesses need a boost, and there’s going to be economic spinoff.”
“That’s right,” Merrifield added. “People may even decide to live in the towns where they’re working.” To me, that sounded like an overly optimistic view of things, but I didn’t really know; maybe he was right. We were quiet for a moment. Late-afternoon sunlight streamed through the window and lay across the table like thin fabric. Through a doorway, I could hear the sounds of the city’s business being done: the shuffle of bodies, the murmur of voices, the clicking of a keyboard.
Finally, I posed the question I’d wanted to ask from the beginning but had thus far lacked the courage to voice, in part because it wasn’t about opportunity or growth. It wasn’t about the people and the city of Franklin; in a sense, it wasn’t even about The Northern Pass.
“Is it uncomfortable,” I asked the mayor, “being the proponent of a project that has met with near-unanimous opposition elsewhere in the state?” Merrifield paused a bit. He looked tired. He looked as though he wanted to choose his words carefully. “You can understand,” he said, “why people are opposing the project.”
To understand why Mayor Merrifield chose his words carefully, you need to know a bit more about The Northern Pass. More specifically, you need to know that Public Service of New Hampshire (PSNH), the utility that has partnered with Hydro-Québec, the province’s government-owned electrical generation entity, to bring power into the state, doesn’t hold easements on the northernmost 40 miles of the 180 miles it would traverse. You need to know that the transmission lines would be carried by nearly 1,200 towers, ranging in height from 80 to 135 feet tall.
You need to know that most, if not all, of the electricity delivered via The Northern Pass wouldn’t remain in New Hampshire but would instead be distributed into the region-wide electricity market. You need to know that New Hampshire is already a net exporter of electricity, producing about twice what its 1.3 million residents use, thanks in large part to the Seabrook nuclear-power plant. You need to know that The Northern Pass is a private, for-profit partnership among Hydro-Québec, NSTAR, and Northeast Utilities, PSNH’s parent company, which estimate that the project will generate more than $1 billion in annual revenue over the next 40 years.
This arrangement is unique to the utility market; most transmission lines are actually paid for by consumers, as a surcharge on their monthly bills. It means that Hydro-Québec and PSNH won’t be compelled to share the line with other producers. Opponents argue that this arrangement would give the two companies a virtual stranglehold on the region’s renewable-power supply, although there’s no shortage of debate regarding whether Hydro-Québec should even qualify as a “renewable” energy source, in large part because its infrastructure includes dams and flood zones necessary to create its reservoirs of water. In fact, under current law, Hydro-Québec doesn’t meet the standards necessary to conform to New Hampshire’s renewable-energy mandate.