Who Needs Coal? Huge Hydropower Project On Tap For New England

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The US Energy Department has been cranking out a flurry of renewable energy news in November, and this one almost sailed under the CleanTechnica radar. Earlier this month, the agency approved a new hydropower transmission line called Northern Pass, which will bring 1,090 gigawatts of clean power into from Canada to the US.

Here’s where it gets interesting. President* Trump is no particular fan of renewable energy, but as a cross-border project the new transmission line required a Presidential permit before the Energy Department could sign off on it.

I know, right? Northern Pass is yet more proof that the US can continue shutting down coal power plants while transitioning seamlessly to a low carbon economy, partly with the help of interconnections with neighboring Canada and Mexico.

More Hydropower For New England, One Way Or Another

No energy source is entirely free of impacts, and new renewable energy transmission lines are also a source of contention. The newly approved hydropower line has been long delayed by issues regarding its route through the White Mountain National Forest. If all goes according to plan, though, a key 60-mile stretch along the new line’s 192-mile route will be buried.

Last spring the company National Grid proposed bringing hydropower from Canada using its existing right-of-way, an idea that some environmental stakeholders have viewed as preferable. However, it looks like Northern Pass’s sponsor Eversource is winning the race for low cost renewable energy.

Not helping National Grid’s case is the company’s newly proposed rate hike for the New England state of Rhode Island. Meanwhile, Northern Pass claims a total savings of $600 million annually for New England electricity customers.

New Hampshire’s Site Evaluation Committee still has to approve the plans, and assuming that happens construction on Northern Pass could begin next April.

The idea is to tap into hydropower plants from Hydro-Québec through a new DC line from the border to Franklin, New Hampshire. A new converter terminal will switch the current to AC for transmission to an existing substation located in Deerfield, NH, and after that it goes into the New England electric grid.

No More Coal For New England

New England has been shedding coal power plants for years, and Northern Pass could be the death blow.

In 2013 Scientific American noted the trend under the headline, “Coal Fired Power Plants Virtually Extinct in New England.” The root cause is cheap natural gas, but the region’s renewable energy portfolio is also expanding.

The coal-closing trend has continued under the Trump administration. Last May, the massive Brayton Point Power Station in Massachusetts announced that it would close permanently, another victim of cheap natural gas. AP has the rundown on the remaining few:

Three smaller New England coal plants still operate in New Hampshire and Bridgeport, Connecticut. But they seldom run, and the Bridgeport plant is expected to close by 2021 to make way for a gas-fired plant on the same site.

So much for the Trump administration’s plans for saving outdated coal power plants. The idea was to develop a new Energy Department “grid study” showing the need to keep old coal power plants from retiring. The final study showed no such thing, so Secretary Perry kicked the can over to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

FERC is currently considering Perry’s order, which would essentially force ratepayers to keep old coal (and nuclear) power plants running even if less costly alternatives are available.

Wait — What?!?

The funny thing is, ever since Perry shoveled responsibility for the decision over to FERC, he and his agency have been pitching renewable energy like gangbusters. To cite just one example, Perry’s newly sworn-in Assistant Secretary of the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability just made a strong case for microgrids and renewable energy as the long-term solution to Puerto Rico’s power problems.

As of this writing, FERC seems inclined to protect coal power plants, but Perry is doing all he can to make a pro-coal decision look ridiculous.

The new hydropower announcement is a case in point. Here’s Perry enthusing over the role of renewable energy in grid reliability and resiliency:

“Smart energy infrastructure development projects like Northern Pass – which support a reliable and resilient grid, promote economic growth, lower energy costs and benefit the environment we all share – shouldn’t take this long to approve. This Administration is committed to improving our nation’s energy infrastructure while also reforming the federal permitting process so that projects like Northern Pass receive full, and prompt, consideration.”

If you caught that thing about “reforming the federal permitting process,” that’s a whopping dose of irony. The Trump administration has put forward a regulatory streamlining plan with an eye to supporting fossil fuel projects, but the Energy Department is deploying that same mindset to benefit renewable energy.

For the Northern Pass project, Perry leveraged a 1953 Executive Order (EO 10,485, as amended in 1978 by EO 12,038), which provides for his agency to issue Presidential Permits for cross-border electricity and natural gas projects.

It’s not obvious that President* Trump is aware that he has just signed off on a major blow to the US coal industry, but he did.

The Energy Department also twisted the knife in the hydropower announcement by noting that “President Trump has proclaimed November 2017 to be Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience Month” — who knew? — and emphasizing that Northern Pass was approved under a Presidential permit.

Then there’s this from President Trump’s Energy Department:

DOE is pleased to recognize projects like Northern Pass that add diversity to our energy supply, benefit the environment, and solidify our commitment to enhancing grid reliability, affordability, and resilience.

The FERC decision is expected by December 11, so stay tuned for that.

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*As of this writing.

Image (screenshot): Northern Pass via YouTube.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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