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Mass. utilities drop Northern Pass, pick hydro-backed Central Maine Power line

Massachusetts' three major electric distribution companies abandoned contract negotiations with Eversource Energy for a supply of Canadian hydroelectric power over the company's proposed Northern Pass transmission line through New Hampshire and will instead negotiate a contract for power to be delivered over a transmission line proposed by Central Maine Power Co.

The bid selection panel charged with procuring emissions-free power — consisting of Eversource through regulated utility subsidiary NSTAR Electric Co., Unitil Corp. and National Grid USA; an independent evaluator; and the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources — on March 28 terminated the conditional selection of Northern Pass, proposed by an unregulated Eversource subsidiary, after the proposed power line was denied a needed siting permit in New Hampshire. The utilities now intend to execute contract agreements with Avangrid Inc. subsidiary Central Maine Power and submit them following the concluding of negotiations to the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities.

"We understand today's decision," Eversource said in a news release. "Despite recent delays, we continue to believe that Northern Pass is the best project for the region and New Hampshire, and we intend to pursue all options for making it a reality."

The Massachusetts selection panel originally selected Northern Pass to transmit up to 1,090 MW of hydroelectric power generated in Canada by provincial government-owned utility Hydro-Québec. Following the permit rejection in February, the panel picked Central Maine Power's New England Clean Energy Connect, which can carry up to 1,200 MW, as the alternative project, but that project is still undergoing federal and state permitting reviews. Central Maine Power said it expects state approvals later this year and final federal permits in early 2019.

Eversource had until March 27 to appeal the New Hampshire decision, a date after which the Massachusetts panel said it would start negotiations with Central Maine Power. But on March 12, the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee said it would postpone proceedings for several weeks. The siting agency had ruled that Eversource failed to show that Northern Pass would not "unduly interfere with the orderly development of the region."

Central Maine Power's $950 million high-voltage, direct-current project is slated to run 145 miles from the Canadian border in western Somerset County, Maine, to a new converter station in Lewiston, Maine. In comparison, Eversource's proposed $1.6 billion HVDC project would run in total 192 miles both above and below ground from the U.S.-Canada border near Pittsburg, N.H., to a converter station in Deerfield, N.H.

Despite altering plans to bury 60 miles of lines underground along roadways so to preserve scenic mountain views, Northern Pass continued to come up against stiff opposition from landowners and conservationists. Among them is New England's Conservation Law Foundation.

"Having been rejected now by two states, the writing is on the wall for Northern Pass," said Greg Cunningham, the foundation's vice president and clean energy and climate change director. "Eversource should pull its plug once and for all."

Hydro-Québec was a partner in Central Maine Power's proposal as well as in Northern Pass. "In January, Massachusetts chose Québec hydropower. We are thus continuing our discussions to negotiate a major contract, convinced that our energy will make a significant contribution to the ongoing energy transition," the company said in a statement. "Northern Pass Transmission remains a sound project."

Massachusetts received 46 bids in response to its March 2017 request for proposals to procure 9.45 terawatt-hours of electricity, equal to about 17% of its total annual electric load, from renewable energy and hydropower. The clean energy RFP was prompted by a law signed in August 2016 by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker that requires utilities to solicit and contract for 2,800 MW of offshore wind, hydropower and other renewables by 2027. These procurements aim to help Massachusetts meet its target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions.