Register Wednesday | September 27 | 2023
Northern Impasse Photograph by Nate Mosseau.

Northern Impasse

A power line could bring clean energy from Quebec into American homes, but at what cost? A report from the heart of New Hampshire's anti-hydro rebellion.

ALLEN HOLMES' HOUSE is flanked by mountain views. There’s a windmill on the roof and pieces of farm equipment in the yard, in various states of disrepair. But something else about the place catches the eye against the December snow: last year, at age sixty-seven, Holmes painted his entire house the shade of fluorescent orange particular to a hunter’s toque.

In northern New Hampshire, orange is the colour of resistance. It shines, DayGlo, from stickers plastered on car bumpers and signs, hung from roadside pine trees, that read “Hydro-Quebec Stop Bullying New Hampshire” and “Northern Pass Kiss My Ass.” Holmes did the signs and stickers one better: he erected two-foot-tall wooden letters spelling out STOP NORTHERN PASS on the front of his house.

Northern Pass is a massive transmission line in partnership with Hydro-Québec that would pump 1,200 megawatts of clean energy into southern New England. While Hydro-Québec is not saying how much money it is hoping to make from Northern Pass, the line would be a major component of the company’s TransEnergie Transmission System into which it has invested nearly $8 billion over the last four years. It’s part of what the former provincial government called Plan Nord, a strategy for northern development which includes a push to sell Quebec’s vast hydroelectric resources to environmentally-conscious energy markets in the United States. The project, rebranded under the Parti Québécois as Le Nord Pour Tous, has huge implications for the province’s economic future. Hydro is the kind of low-carbon-emission energy source the world sorely needs—Northern Pass wouldn’t contribute nearly as much to climate change as natural gas fracking or an oil drilling project.

To a dispassionate observer, the transmission line looks like a win-win-win: cash for Quebec, clean power for New England and less carbon for the atmosphere. But like most development projects, Northern Pass will leave a certain amount of destruction in its wake. The transmission line would cut a gash through northern New Hampshire, marring some of New England’s most beautiful wilderness and tarnishing the deep connection to the land felt by the region’s residents. Many blame Quebec and its namesake energy corporation for their predicament. For a province rarely cast as the marauding bully, it’s an unusual role.

The fight over Northern Pass is also becoming a proving ground for a bigger idea: that ostensibly-green energy projects have victims, too. As the world becomes increasingly aware of the dangers of burning oil and coal into the atmosphere, the demand for relatively clean projects like Northern Pass is set to skyrocket. But the people of northern New Hampshire are trying to show power companies in Quebec and beyond that being green doesn’t give them carte blanche.

As dairy farmer and Northern Pass opponent Roderick (Rod) McAllaster says, “How do you like being the sacrificial lamb? I don’t care much for the idea of it.”

THE HEART OF THE OPPOSITION to Northern Pass lives in Coos County, New Hampshire (it’s pronounced Koh-aws), a nook of land that touches the Canadian border near Sherbrooke, Quebec. The area’s rolling hills aren’t as spectacular as the White Mountains that dominate the landscape seventy miles south, but they are less overrun with tourists and money. They are wilder. The landscape in the North Country evokes the romanticism of pre-industrial New England. Time and progress move on a different clock.

In his poem “The Witch of Coos,” Robert Frost wrote that here, a person is tucked away “behind the mountains” among the “old-believers.” And indeed, the locals have deep roots and strong beliefs. The phrase “not in my backyard,” clipped by the cold shorthand of policy discussions to “NIMBYism,” is often used to deride the objections of local residents to development projects. But not every backyard looks like Coos County. And the locals here want to protect theirs with an uncommon vehemence.

McAllaster represents the fifth generation of his family to live on his 967-acre plot. His great-great-uncle’s father “homesteaded” the place in the 1850s, cutting down the original forest and building a house. McAllaster’s voice tightens with anger when he talks about Northern Pass. “They think that they can take [the land], because in Quebec they do take it. And the people have to git and leave,” he told me. McAllaster has relatives in Coos County who have sold their land to Northern Pass. When I asked if he was on good terms with them, he grew quiet. “I don’t want to be.” As far as he’s concerned, they sold the area out.

For the past several years, Northeast Utilities, the New England-based power company behind both the Northern Pass project and the subsidiary of the same name, has been trying to get McAllaster to sell out, too. The firm originally offered him a bigger plot of land not far from his current property if he would hand over his farm. “They figured as long as I could gain acreage, then I might be interested,” he said. But he wasn’t, and has summarily rejected all of their offers since.

McAllaster says the initial offers for his land came through locals, through people he knows. The first conduit was a store owner from a neighbouring town with whom McAllaster goes hunting. Other offers came through relatives or friends on behalf of the company. (Northern Pass has em- ployed some local people as “community liaisons.”) Then a company agent started turning up—he made an offer in the barn where McAllaster milks his cows. The first offer was a land swap with increased acreage. Eventually, they attached a price tag. A friend, whom McAllaster suspects was working for the company, offered $4 million, $800,000 for each generation of the McAllaster family that has lived there. McAllaster thinks they were prepared to go even higher, but says they could have offered him $40 million and it wouldn’t have changed his mind. What irked him most was the company’s decision to enlist his friends and family in the negotiations. “I don’t think it’s very professional. I’m just a stupid farmer, but it’s not the way I’d do it,” he shouted over the sound of milking machines.

Northern Pass declined to comment on the McAllaster property, or their negotiations with Coos County residents, citing respect for landowners’ privacy. But local property records show that, since 2011, the company’s affiliates have been buying up land in northern New Hampshire at a rapid clip. The company has targeted the northern part of Coos County in particular. There is no existing thoroughfare for the transmission towers there, so Northeast Utilities is going to have to burrow its own, slicing its way through ancient family farms and pristine forest. According to re- cords from the Coos County Registry of Deeds, the company paid $110,000 for the McAleer property up near Mudget Mountain in Stewartstown. The company also bought twelve acres off of Clarkesville pond Road for $90,000. East of Holden Hill Road in Stewartstown, the price was $530,000 for 105 acres. For three parcels across Clarksville and Colebrook, the company shelled out $1.4 million. The list goes on. No one but Northeast Utilities knows exactly how much money the company has spent on buying land for Northern Pass.

If the permit for Northern Pass is granted by the US Department of Energy (DOE), and the current route is then approved by the state of New Hampshire’s site evaluation committee, a line of hydro towers as tall as 27 metres will pass right between Marty Kaufman’s house and the spring where he draws his water. Kaufman and his wife Janice live just down the road from McAllaster. A psychiatrist originally from western Massachusetts, Kaufman, seventy-eight, doesn’t look a day over sixty as he stands tossing firewood into the massive wood stove that heats his home. He designed and built the house in 1981, ten years after buying the 350-acre plot it sits on. He also dug a mile-long trench that brings in water from a nearby spring. The water comes out of the side of a hill and continues through a small pipe that Kaufman dug into the ground. The disruption of the spring water is one of the things that Kaufman, an outspoken critic of the project, is most concerned about. We hiked into the woods to see where the water comes from, and it was cold and fresh as we drank standing amongst the dense pine trees. He worries that the metal lattice towers and the foundations needed to support them would disturb the source he cherishes.

A 260-KILOMETRE DRIVE NORTH, in Quebec City, Kaufman’s spring and his firewood don’t factor into the political calculus around hydroelectricity. Quebec has invested as much as $10 billion in developing its hydro resources in the north of the province, in part so it can sell energy to American power companies. When then-premier Jean Charest unveiled Plan Nord in May of 2011, he said it would generate an estimated $14 billion in revenue over the next twenty-five years and contribute $162 billion to the province’s gross domestic product. That would go a long way towards producing the economic self-sufficiency many Quebecers see as essential to being maître chez nous—the company paid $8.9 billion in dividends to the provincial government between 2008 and 2012.

Even before this, enthusiasm for hydroelectric power in the Northeast US was growing. In the late 1990s, the majority of New England’s energy grid was deregulated and put under the management of a private not-for-profit company, opening the market to Canadian firms.

In June 2013, the state of Connecticut altered its renewable portfolio standard to allow for increased levels of large-scale hydro production. During talks leading up to the decision, a Northeast Utilities spokesperson said the move would increase the value of hydroelectricity, because it helps local utilities meet environmental targets. This could also open up the possibility of public subsidies.

It also helps New England reduce its dependence on natural gas, which made up just over half of the region’s energy portfolio as recently as 2012. While natural gas emits much less carbon than oil does—and contributes less to climate change—the hydraulic fracturing process has come under growing scrutiny in recent years, as footage of tap water being lit on fire in gas-producing regions has caught the popular imagination.

Northern Pass, for which Northeast Utilities filed its initial permit application in 2010, would join a series of proposed high-voltage transmission lines connecting Quebec’s hydro power to customers in the Northeast US. New York has the Champlain Hudson Power Express, Vermont has the New England Clean Power Link, Maine has the Northeast Energy Link. All of these cables are meant to carry Canadian hydroelectric power from the vast network of dams across eastern Canada into American homes. 

THE CONSTRUCTION OF THESE DAMS has generated its own resistance north of the border—indigenous communities have fought with the Quebec government over hydro for decades. In April of 2012, forty Innu women marched the 900 kilometres from their community near Sept-Îles to Montreal protesting Plan Nord.

That same month, at the height of Quebec’s Maple Spring student protests, activists stormed the lobby of Montreal’s Palais des Congrès during a Plan Nord conference hosted by Charest. Outside the building, protesters fought with police in some of the fiercest clashes during the whole Maple Spring. The protesters, Charest joked from inside, should be given jobs in the north—and as far north as possible.

So far, protesters haven’t been able to block the steady growth of hydro power in Quebec. Now, on both sides of the border, the gears of money and politics are grinding away at New Hampshire residents’ resolve to block Northern pass. But opponents in Coos County have tried all manner of tactics to stop the transmission line. According to the Concord Monitor, the state capital’s daily newspaper, all of the thirty-one North Country towns along the original proposed route voted to oppose the project in 2011 and 2012. The New Hampshire legislature has also voted to block companies like Northeast Utilities from using eminent domain to take land. In January, legislators gave preliminary approval to a bill that would give preference to projects that bury their transmission lines.

Other opponents have tried more attention-grabbing forms of protest. In 2011, Allen Holmes—he of the orange house—participated in a Hands Across the Border demonstration, wherein activists and local residents from the North Country formed a human chain across the border with Quebecers opposed to the Northern Pass, all of them decked out in orange.

Recently, landowners have tried to checkmate Northern Pass by selling or donating land the company covets to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, who turn the plots into “conservation easements,” making development there illegal. As part of its Trees not Towers campaign, the forest society is acquiring easements all along the proposed route. Thus far, they have raised $3.7 million, according to spokesperson Jack Savage. (Savage has set his automatic email signature to read “Sent from Deep in the Woods,” rather than the customary “Sent from my iPhone.”)

Maps released by the Society show what amounts to an intricate game of chess between Northern Pass and the environmentalists, played with plots of prime North Country real estate. Northern Pass already owns most of the land along its proposed route, but there are a few key sections missing.

Opponents weren’t able to stop Plan Nord, but they’ve already slowed Northern Pass’ approval. In June 2013, local resistance forced Northern Pass to amend its application to the department of energy by submitting a revised route. In the years since the initial proposal, stubborn landowners have successfully pressured the project to change the location where the line will cross the border. Whether or not the new route goes ahead may depend on McAllaster’s contention that he owns the land underneath a road that bisects his property, a claim that he expects will be tested in court if the project makes it past another series of administrative hurdles.

The company’s quest to buy its way through northern New Hampshire is not guaranteed to work. And if landowners can’t stop the project by withholding their acres, Northern Pass opponents will try to stop the project with red tape.

IN HUNTING CIRCLES, fluorescent orange is a defence. It says, “Stop, don’t shoot, there’s human life here.” In September 2013, Kaufman and over two hundred others, many of them clad in orange, gathered at the elementary school in Colebrook, just south of Stewartstown. They were there to speak to representatives of the DOE, up from Washington for a “public scoping meeting.” the reps were there to decide whether or not they should grant the federal permit that Northern Pass needs to put a power line across Halls Stream, which marks part of the Canada-US border. In his soft-spoken and thoughtful way, Kaufman told the people from the DOE about his water line.

Others weren’t as demure. Howard Moffett, a state legislator representing Canterbury and Loudon, further south in the state, sounded angry. “To trash New Hampshire’s scenic landscapes for the benefit of electric consumers in southern New England is simply unacceptable. So stick to your guns. Let’s make them put this underground. Bury it!” he bellowed to a round of applause.

Moffet is extremely well-versed in the contours and specificities of the New England energy landscape. In his speech he was alluding to a plan, endorsed by many Northern Pass opponents, to route the transmission line underground. Burying the lines is one way to preserve the natural beauty many feel will be spoiled by wires running almost 25 metres in the air on massive steel-frame towers.

Northern Pass says it would be prohibitively expensive to bury the entire route through the North Country, though it has agreed to bury roughly 13 kilometres. In neighbouring Vermont, a separate hydro project will bury 250 kilometres of transmission line, also carrying hydroelectricity from Quebec into New England. But New Hampshire’s soil is much rockier than that of its neighbours (its nickname is the Granite State) and the cost of burying the cable would be enormous. For now, then, it looks like the power line will slice through the sky, or Northern Pass won’t get built at all.

A few transmission towers might not seem like something to get up in arms about, but Holmes doesn’t see it that way. For one thing, he says the town’s assessment of his property value has dropped by about $20,000 since the Northern Pass negotiations began. Many locals also fear the line will cause severe ecological damage. 

As part of its permitting process, the DOE is producing a study on the effects Northern Pass will have on wildlife, ecosystems and historical properties. A DOE website devoted to the study has received thousands of public comments. Some come from local towns’ conservation commissions. A letter from Roy R. Stever, chairman of the commission in the town of Easton, reads, “We continue to believe that the project is a private, profit-laden insult to the residents of Easton, the people of New Hampshire, the millions who have visited the WMNF [White Mountain National Forest] from all over the world ... and the countless dedicated New Hampshire citizens and elected officials who over the centuries have had the fortitude to say ‘no.’”

THERE IS SOMETHING ironic about environmentalists fighting a project that would likely reduce New England’s carbon emissions. But while fossil fuels are bad for the planet, their alternatives can be dreadful, too. The $24 billion Three Gorges dam on China’s Yangtze River may be responsible for landslides and other devastating effects on the area’s ecosystems. We were all reminded of the risks of nuclear power after the Japanese tsunami and subsequent Fukushima reactor meltdowns. And while solar and wind can be relatively clean alternatives, wind turbines kill as many as 328,000 birds a year and transporting the hazardous waste resulting from solar panel manufacturing produces carbon emissions in its own right.

There is an altogether different irony in the people of northern New Hampshire being told that “we” need this power, that “we” need to clean up our act, energy-wise. Though they may use gas-guzzling pickup trucks to get along unplowed roads, many of them grow their own food. They use wood stoves for heating. When they shop, they do so locally out of pure rural necessity. From cities further south where people live stacked on top of each other, from suburbs where people sprawl in webs of commuter housing, from these places the message comes: we need this.

Northern Pass often plays the clean energy card in its case for building transmission lines. “By adding 1,200 megawatts of clean, affordable hydro-power to the New England market, Northern Pass will displace an equal amount of costlier fossil-fuel based energy,” company spokesperson Lauren Collins wrote in an email. The company projects that Northern Pass will reduce New England’s carbon emissions by up to 5 million tons a year. But critics counter that the dams produce their own carbon footprint, in large part due to decaying biomass caused by flooding.

For many residents of Franklin, New Hampshire, the arguments about climate change are of secondary importance. One of the few hotbeds of support for the project, Franklin is one of the poorest towns in the state, a fact suggested by the vacant storefronts that pockmark its Main Street. But Northern Pass has picked Franklin as the location for a terminal that would convert the hydroelectric power from direct to alternating current in order to plug it into the New England grid.

When I met Mayor Ken Merrifield in city hall, we sat in folding chairs in a large auditorium; he has no office. I asked him what the project would mean for Franklin and his face lit up. Northern Pass would have “historic-level benefits,” he said.

The city of 8,500 has been struggling since paper and textile mills closed forty years ago, moving for the cheaper labour of the American south and Asia. As people left the town, much of the local housing stock was abandoned. The converter station would nearly double income from property taxes, Merrifield said.

In fact, Franklin’s mayor is so enthusiastic about Northern Pass, he has become something of a case study for energy companies looking to win over recalcitrant locals. In November 2013, Merrifield was one of the speakers at a conference in Toronto on public consultation and engagement. He spoke to attendees about how companies “can respond to dissent and improve the consultation process.”

But outside of Franklin, Northern Pass hasn’t responded to dissent so much as it’s been bludgeoned by it. A recent report by Washington Analysis, a DC consultancy, warned investment firms that the transmission line would likely not go up as soon as the company has promised. “Regulatory hurdles and substantial political headwinds will likely prevent the project from going into service before 2018, at the earliest with delays until 2019-2020 very possible as well,” the report read. “We simply disagree with Northeast Utilities’ past statement that it expects Northern Pass to be in service in 2017.”

Of course, Northern Pass opponents hope the project won’t go ahead at all. It will be a long time coming, but they may still get their wish. the department of energy’s draft environmental-impact study is due out later this year. If the DOE decides to issue the permit Northern Pass needs to cross the border and cut through a stretch of the White Mountain National Forest, the state of New Hampshire will initiate its own review process. The forest society is prepared to take the project to court to protect its conservation easements. If the court rules in the Society’s favour, Northeast Utilities may have to find another route, or bury the lines through Coos County. For Marty Kaufman, burying the lines is the only viable solution.

Last December, Kaufman and his wife Janice invited me and a photographer to spend the weekend at their house, to get a look at the land where the towers would come through. As we sat in Kaufman’s kitchen, about 450 metres from where the Northern Pass transmission towers would stand, I asked him how far he thought people would go to stop the project. Would they blockade roads? After a thoughtful pause, he said very simply, “If a decision is made, at a certain point, to start blockading roads, then the roads will be blockaded.”

Above the stove in Kaufman’s kitchen is a framed copy of the Graphic, a British illustrated news magazine published in 1883. Its headline reads: “Riches, titles, honour, power, and worldly prospects are as naught to a deeply-rooted love."