- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 30, 2018

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - After more than two years of sometimes contentious debate, New Hampshire regulators are on the verge of deciding whether to approve the Northern Pass hydropower project.

The Site Evaluation Committee on Tuesday began 12 days of public deliberations on the $1.6 billion plan to bring hydropower from Canada by creating a 192-mile transmission line through New Hampshire for customers in southern New England. It is expected to reach an oral decision by Feb. 23 and a written decision by March 31. They could approve or reject the project, or approve it with a series of conditions.

Much of the discussion Tuesday focused on whether the utility behind the project, Eversource, has the financial and technical ability to build it. Members also debated whether the construction expected to begin as soon as April would impact local businesses and tourism, especially traffic during the fall foliage season. The project is expected to start producing power by the end of 2020.

Going forward, members must consider whether the project would negatively impact regional development as well as whether it would be detrimental to the region’s air and water quality, historic sites and public health and safety.

Northern Pass has formal contracts with suppliers and a labor agreement with construction managers and unions. It’s been granted permits by the Energy Department and the U.S. Forest Service, and has the support of Massachusetts energy officials. It still needs a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit related to its impact on wetlands and the power supplier, Hydro-Quebec, needs project approval from the national electric board in Canada.

Supporters say the project will create jobs, bring development to the northern part of the state and cut energy costs.

Opponents fear transmission line towers - some as high as 155 feet - will destroy scenic views, reduce property values and hurt tourism. They also argue the project offers few benefits to New Hampshire, since much of the power is slated to go to customers in Massachusetts.

Last week, the project was selected from among dozens of bids submitted last year under a 2016 law that called for a significant boost in the supply of renewable energy in Massachusetts. It would transmit enough hydropower for about a million homes.

“There are many reasons why this project is important for the state of New Hampshire. It is also important now for the state of Massachusetts and the region as a whole,” Eversource New Hampshire President Bill Quinlan told reporters during a break in the hearing. “It couldn’t be clearer from the experience this winter during the cold snap that a new, diverse base load power supply is important to keeping energy costs low and meeting our environmental goals.”

Despite the Massachusetts decision, opponents said they remain confident the committee will reject the project.

Judy Reardon, a senior adviser for Protect the Granite State, a group opposed to the project, said the testimony thus far has shown that “Northern Pass is a bad deal for New Hampshire.”

“If built, the project will devastate our environment, do significant harm to our small businesses and tourist economy while having virtually no impact on lowering our electric rates,” she said in a statement. “Northern Pass will simply make New Hampshire into an extension cord to transport power to Massachusetts and southern New England, which is unacceptable.”

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