In recent years it seemed Northern Pass may have made a mistake getting ahead of the crowd in an attempt to sell Quebec hydropower into New England, as it faced more than six years of withering criticism while later-arriving proposals drew little attention.
On Thursday, the strategy paid off.
Northern Pass was the sole winner of a huge Massachusetts clean-energy project that seeks to buy enough electricity to power one-seventh of the Bay State’s need over 20 years, and the fact that it already has obtained a number of major permits was a factor in the decision.
“Based on its economic benefit to ratepayers and availability to move forward, it provided the greatest overall value to Massachusetts customers,” said Judith Judson, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, in making the announcement Thursday afternoon about what is known as the Massachusetts Clean Energy RFP.
Massachusetts officials did not release many details about the decision, including cost. Eversource must still negotiate a contract. If no deal is reached, then bids could be reopened.
Bill Quinlan, CEO of Eversource New Hampshire, attributed the choice partly to the head start for the project, which Eversource and HydroQuebec first announced in 2011.
“I do believe we were the most mature. We had the greatest probably … of being in service by 2020, “ said Quinlan. “We have been planning this project for a very long time. I think that differentiates it from the other projects that were bid.”
Quinlan noted that Eversource has received virtually all its federal permits, as well as permission from the province Quebec to connect across the border, and has a labor agreement with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers as well as a “firm construction schedule.”
If all goes ahead as quickly as possible, he said, work could begin in Franklin to build a converter station as early as this summer. Work is unlikely to begin on towers in the Concord area until 2019.
“This is a very aggressive construction schedule. We’ll be working multiple segments simultaneously – probably 5 to 10 locations in any given day,” Quinlan said.
Some 46 projects bid into the Massachusetts Clean Energy RFP project. They ranged from relatively small solar farms, including one to be built in Concord, to very large wind farms to gigawatt-scale transmission projects similar to Norther Pass.
“Considering the issues, including permitting and permitting risk, it rose to the top,” said Massachusetts Energy Secretary Matthew Beaton.
Northern Pass still faces one major obstacle: It needs approval from the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee, which must approve all major utility projects.
After 70 days of hearings, that body starts deliberations on Tuesday, with a decision due by March. If the SEC says no, Northern Pass cannot go forward, although Eversource would probably appeal the decision in court.
Criticism of the Massachusetts decision is likely to be widespread, especially since Eversource – along Unitil and National Grid, the other power utilities in Massachusetts – were part of the oversight team that evaluated the options.
“Eversource wrote the RFP, and by picking their own project as the winner, have made consumers the losers,” said Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, which represents independent power plants that are often at odds with Eversource. “More than 20 years ago Massachusetts prudently decided to make utilities indifferent to where energy supplies come from by introducing competition. … Eversource has attempted to rewrite that policy. Today is a sad milestone in that effort.”
The $1.6 billion Northern Pass would run for 192 miles, about 52 of them buried through the White Mountain National Forest, starting at Pittsburg on the Canadian border. A new direct current (DC) transmission line will be built down to Franklin, where the new converter terminal will change the power to alternating current (AC), which will be carried south on new or enlarged towers in an existing right-of-way past Concord to a substation in Deerfield, where the power will feed into the New England grid.
Among the competitors were two plans by National Grid that would use mostly existing power lines in New Hampshire and Massachusetts to bring similar amounts of electricity down from Quebec, produced either by hydropower or wind power.
Massachusetts has a second large clean-energy RFP in action. The state will choose in April projects to provide 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind power.
For its first 20 years, the Northern Pass investment will be covered by payments from Massachusetts electric ratepayers; after that, HydroQuebec, the massive hydropower company owned by the province of Quebec, will cover the cost and sell its electricity into the open market.
The Massachusetts Clean Energy RFP, or request for proposals, was drafted last year in response to Gov. Charlie Baker's 2016 energy bill that said utilities in the state must buy 9.45 million megawatt-hours of so-called Class I renewables.
That contract would take up the entire output of Northern Pass, which has a maximum carrying capacity of 1,090 megawatts.