Opponents of Northern Pass are hoping a study of existing high-voltage power lines carrying hydroelectric power from Quebec into New England will give more ammunition to their case that the controversial project through the North Country is not needed.
Spokesmen for Northeast Utilities, which hopes to build the 1,200-megawatt transmission lines, say opponents are tilting at windmills.
The debate stems from a request by National Grid, which owns an existing line capable of transmitting up to 2,000 megawatts from Quebec, through Northern Vermont, entering New Hampshire at Littleton, and continuing into Massachusetts, passing through Bedford on the way.
National Grid wants to push more hydro power from Quebec through the lines, and has asked ISO-NE, which operates the New England power grid, to open a study that could eventually determine if that request is approved.
The ISO-NE Planning Advisory Committee began its review of the National Grid request on May 22 with a presentation on the existing situation and the scope of work the study would require.
The power lines in question can handle 2,000 megawatts, and sometimes press close to that amount with ISO-NE approval as circumstances merit.
National Grid is only authorized to contract, or guarantee, 1,400 megawatts of capacity, but has transmitted 1,800 or more on occasion as the energy needs of the region dictate.
Any plan to boost the firm capacity of the line beyond 1,400 would have implications beyond New England and into New York and Pennsylvania, which have power-sharing agreements with the six-state region. The impact on back-up plans and reliability strategies will have to be examined, but if the firm capacity of the line is increased, Northern Pass opponents are sure to grab onto that as an example of better options.
“It would certainly be an argument for looking carefully at all the alternatives to Northern Pass,” said Christophe Courchesne, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation in Concord, “including better use of existing transmission corridors that already link Quebec and New England, investing in increasing capacity for those lines, or putting another line in the same corridor.”
Martin Murray, speaking for Northern Pass, said project opponents are “somewhat disingenuous” if they suggest that National Grid’s request indicates a surplus of transmission capacity for Quebec hydro.
“They are misrepresenting that only 1,400 megawatts of the 2,000 megawatt capacity is being used,” he said. “That’s not true. On paper, 1,400 is the firm capacity, but on a day-to-day basis, much more of that capacity is being used.”
According to the ISO, imports along the line hit as high as 1,850 megawatts during various points in 2012. A key question for the study will be whether technology and grid management have advanced to the point where it is not necessary to keep so much capacity in reserve to protect against the loss of a major power plant.
“The ISO will move forward with this study,” said spokesperson Lacey Ryan. “We are refining the scope and will present draft assumptions to the committee next month. We hope to complete the study by the end of the year.”