In late 2016, the Massachusetts legislature approved the Climate Protection and Green Economy Act, which set a series of environmental protection targets that the state had to meet, the first being a 25% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2020. In January 2017, an amendment to the Act to Promote Energy Diversity also required the state to procure at least 400 MW of non-wind renewable energy by 2027. To accomplish these goals, the state issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for “Long Term Contracts for Clean Energy Projects” in March of 2017 in conjunction with all of the major energy providers in New England, including NSTAR, National Grid, and, most critically, Eversource. After reviewing the bids for a year, the state, in conjunction with the providers, decided to controversially award the project to Eversource in February of 2018 for a proposal known as the “Northern Pass”, which would import 9,400,000 MWh produced by Hydro-Québec into Massachusetts on an annual basis. The proposal had been in the works since 2010, and received a favorable report from the US Department of Energy. The only catch was that the 192-mile transmission line was planned to run through New Hampshire. Even after renegotiating the placement of the line so that it wouldn’t have towers in the White Mountain National Forest, the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee rejected the proposal in early March. After trying and failing to come to terms with the various negotiating parties, Massachusetts rescinded the award on March 28, announcing plans to work with Central Maine Power on their own Hydro-Québec transmission line known as New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC).
How Much do you Know about Hydropower?
What Went Wrong — Breaking Down the Main Arguments against Northern Pass
- Hydropower has Environmental Downsides
- If you think of hydroelectric power as a clean form of energy with no emissions, then you don’t quite have the whole picture. Professor Henry Lee, currently of Harvard and the former Secretary of Energy for Massachusetts, says that during the initial surge of water projects in the mid-20th century, “the government didn’t really understand the consequences of all of these dams. That’s to say nothing of the habitat destruction.” The trouble with hydropower is the large reservoirs entailed by the nature of most hydroelectric dams. A hydroelectric turbine converts the kinetic energy carried by falling water into electricity. This means that these dams are more efficient as the distance that the water falls and the velocity it falls with (or, equivalently, the pressure on the dam) increase, hence reservoirs like Lake Powell, which is created by a dam more than 100 feet tall and contains 30 cubic kilometers of water, are ideal. The problem is that man-made water bodies of this size have some unintended consequences, including disrupting tectonic plates with their sheer weight, destroying large swathes of ecosystems, and, most importantly, crushing all of the organic material that collects in the basin and emitting methane as a result. Methane is a greenhouse gas that has more effect than carbon dioxide, and although this side effect was initially thought to be very minor, recent studies have shown that these dams may emit close to as much as natural gas plants. Advocates of hydropower, however, argue that those drawbacks shouldn’t obscure the advantages it presents. Russ Kelly, a senior Eversource official who had been associated with the Northern Pass project, says that “New England has these grand plans to reduce carbon emissions, and that’s great, but you can’t do that just with wind and solar. Those are intermittent power sources, we need something more consistent — hydropower could be our best option.” Henry Lee agrees. “Hydropower is flexible — I can cycle it down and up within thirty seconds, and that’s something that I think is really necessary for a key part of the electric grid.”
- Regulations Difficulties
- “One of the biggest difficulties with renewables,” according to Henry Lee, “is that the optimal places to collect renewable energy, whether that means wind farms, solar panels, or hydroelectric dams, aren’t usually the places with the most population.” Indeed, distance can be a problem for renewable projects, especially because the regulations surrounding energy distribution are all on the state level. Henry Lee explains that “Most of these laws were written in the 1930s, when the majority of the electrical grid in the US was being built. The grid, especially in terms of distribution, is mostly an in-state situation, so there was no need for the federal government to worry about inter-state disputes. But now with renewables, they need these long transmission lines that go through states which get few to no benefits from them. Obviously, those in-between states aren’t going to want the lines.” Russ Kelly concurs. “[The federal government] can step in and use eminent domain for a natural gas or oil pipeline,” he says. “I don’t think they can do that for a transmission line because the electricity distribution laws are different than the ones for energy distribution.” This isn’t a problem that is unique to New England, or even the United States. “I’ve consulted quite a few different countries on installing renewables,” says Henry Lee, “and this problem exists in Chile, in Argentina, in a lot of places. But the United States is the only developed country that has this much trouble with it because of how localized the rules are.” Russ Kelly thinks that New England is one of the most difficult places in the country for renewable projects. “You’ve got six governors with different, usually competing interests, plus all the industries in those states, and there’s not much space to go around. I wish the guys working on NECEC good luck, but I’d be surprised if a deal gets finished any time soon.”
- Transmission Towers ruin Scenic Lands
- This has been the topic around which most of the public debate has centered. Many conservation organizations and others in the New England area were very concerned about potentially constructing transmission towers (as would be necessary to maintain the line) through the wilder portions of New Hampshire, especially the White Mountain National Forest. Russ Kelly expressed great frustration with this argument. “It’s true that any infrastructure project, especially one as large as Northern Pass, has some impacts,” he says. “But a lot of the people that have been worried about ruining the land have had other interests in mind — there’s a lot of industry against it. There’s the New England Power Generators Association which wants to keep the cheaper Canadian energy out, and I can understand that, but there are a lot of shadier people involved. Take, for example, Protect the Granite State (PTGS) — they’re an organization that has been pouring millions of dollars into stopping Northern Pass.” According to their website, “the destruction to our magnificent landscape [caused by the project] will not be salvageable” and the transmission line “will disrupt communities and change our landscape forever”. This would seem to project the image of a concerned consumer group, but “PTGS isn’t even from New Hampshire,” Russ Kelly explains. “They’re a legal agency from Delaware who have been paid millions to fight the project. Their backers are anonymous, but people in the industry say they have ties to NextEra [the generator giant].” This seems particularly ironic considering much of their website is devoted to emphasizing that the project will only benefit “big corporations, not New Hampshire consumers.” Others disagree, saying that despite the possibility of the generating industry working to stop the pipeline for their own gain, the land protection concerns are totally legitimate in their own right. Jack Clarke, director of public policy at the Massachusetts Audubon Society, takes that view. “I spoke to a lot of people working in conservation in New Hampshire,” he said. “And not one of them was even on the fence about supporting this project. A lot of them told me that these transmission towers would ruin one of the best pieces of pure wilderness in the country. When you add that to the fact that all their members care about that wilderness as much as anything else in the state, it’s no surprise really that it didn’t pass.”
Solutions and Lessons for Next Time
- Federal Regulations: Many of the issues encountered by Northern Pass were due to local interests pushing aside the general good. “We need to increase federal power in the area of electricity distribution,” says Henry Lee. “And that’s coming from someone who worked in state government his whole life. But this is really a job for the federal government.”
- Communication is Key: When companies are planning a large scale project like this, they need to clearly and effectively communicate what they want to all of the parties that will be involved. That way, parts of a proposal that are problematic can be eliminated in the planning stage, which will help all projects that are selected can break ground without all of the controversy that hounded Northern Pass. “We started this project all the way back in 2010, and the outreach to landowners, to elected officials, could have been done in a different fashion,” Russ Kelly admits. “It definitely could have been done better.”
- Educate the Public: People in the area knew surprisingly little about this issue, even as the story was developing. A survey taken of high school students in Cambridge, MA, revealed that out of the 150 respondents, 72% said that they had heard “nothing” about Northern Pass and a further 19% responded “a small amount”. Even among those who rated their knowledge of hydropower at greater than 5 out of 10, 37% said “nothing” and 26% “a small amount”. These figures were surprising in light of the fact that the project had been on the front page of the Boston Globe less than three weeks prior to the date of the survey. Russ Kelly says that “[he hopes] people get educated about these issues. There’s a lot of disinformation out there, and that’s the only way to reduce the power of the special interest groups that get involved.”
Whatever your answers were, there’s a way to make them heard…write to your representatives! The best way to spark change is to let the politicians who represent you (whether at the local, state, or national level) know how you feel about an issue. Hydropower, much like the larger energy situation in New England, is a complex issue with no one clear right answer. However, the current situation of blockading foreign energy while also maintaining a total lack of action on any local energy projects is clearly the wrong strategy. This is not limited to New England either — many places around the country have their own energy difficulties, and wherever you come from, you should read up on your local energy situation. A very simple letter that can be written to any representative is as follows:
Dear [representative’s name],
I am greatly concerned by the energy situation in [your region/city/state]. We are losing more than [the amount in your region] megawatts of electricity from closing power plants and [any other types of closing generation facilities] in the next few years, and not enough action is being taken to replace it with renewable energy. Please take action by voting to increase federal control over the electricity distribution industry and also to [write your stance on hydropower or the energy of choice in your region here]. Clean energy is an important part of our future, and we can’t dawdle in the fight against climate change if we want to make an impact.
Thank you for reading!
List of Sources:
Interview with Russ Kelly, Communications Manager for Northern Pass, Eversource
Interview with Jack Clarke, Director of Public Policy, Mass Audubon
Interview with Henry Lee, Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School