A regional power solution

Tapping ratepayers for gas, electricity lines

The six New England governors are plotting huge changes in the region’s energy market, but none of them are stepping up to explain why their proposals are needed or how they will affect their constituents.

The governors are pushing a plan that would have New England’s electricity ratepayers absorb both the cost of a new natural gas pipeline coming into the region as well as a major transmission line carrying hydroelectric power from Canada. The goal is to ease periodic supply constraints for natural gas and to tap a low-carbon source of electricity to the north, but there are tons of questions about the proposals and relatively few answers.

“The governors owe it to their constituents to make their case and do it in a public forum so people can ask questions,” said Shanna Cleveland, a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston.

With many of New England’s coal, oil, and nuclear power plants shutting down, the region faces some big energy choices. Do we build new power plants, import more energy from outside the region, or try to scale back our overall use of electricity? Do we embrace relatively cheap fracked natural gas, or do we try to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels? Do we import hydro from Canada, or develop more expensive offshore wind?

The six New England governors have been grappling with these questions for a couple years and apparently have reached a consensus on Canadian hydro and natural gas. Many of the details are being worked out by a series of fairly obscure regional agencies with little input from the general public. There are plans to seek approval from federal regulators for bill assessments to pay for the projects as early as this fall.

Massachusetts residents have a huge stake in the debate because they consume the most electricity in the region and will likely foot much of the bill for whatever gets built. A PowerPoint presentation handed out at a meeting on the proposals this week in Westborough indicated the cost would be shared by all of the region’s residents, but didn’t explain how the cost would be apportioned among the individual states.

“The specifics of how they’d go about it have been frighteningly lacking,” said Greg Cunningham, a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation’s office in Portland, Maine, who attended this week’s meeting.

State officials have suggested the governors’ plan is needed because the private markets haven’t put forward any solutions to the region’s emerging energy shortage, but that’s not entirely true. Kinder Morgan, the corporate parent of Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co., is proposing to build a pipeline extension from Pennsylvania into New York and then across northern Massachusetts to Dracut. The company’s website says it solicited potential customers for the gas and generated “significant interest” from local gas distribution companies and generators of electricity. The website says negotiations with potential customers are under way. There is no mention of a need for a region-wide charge on electric bills to pay for the pipeline.

Hydro Quebec, one of several companies that want to deliver more hydroelectric power into New England, has proposed working with Northeast Utilities to build a transmission line into southern New Hampshire. The line is controversial because it runs through the White Mountains, but it does represent a private market solution.

In Massachusetts, an initial bid to kick-start Canadian hydro imports is off to a rocky start. Gov. Deval Patrick filed a bill that directed the state’s utilities to solicit bids for 2,400 megawatts of clean energy, presumably hydropower from Canada. The bill made it to the House Ways and Means Committee before stalling in the face of opposition from Rep. Patricia Haddad of Somerset, who wanted a special set-aside for offshore wind power procurement, a priority of South Coast communities. Business groups opposed the wind set-aside.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

“There seems to be a lot of issues with the bill,” Haddad said. She said it seemed as if the administration hadn’t consulted with all the interested parties beforehand. “In my business, perception is reality and there’s a perception that people were left out of this,” she said.

That seems to be a recurring theme. Part of the problem is that the governors are attempting a regional approach but no one governor can speak for the region. Earlier this month, the New England States Committee on Electricity, a nonprofit that facilitates cooperation among the states on power issues, took issue with suggestions by the Conservation Law Foundation that deals were being cut behind closed doors. The committee insisted in a July 14 statement posted on its website that there will be many opportunities for input on the energy proposals in a variety of state and federal forums.