State regulators unanimously rejected an application for a hydropower project that would have provided clean energy to Massachusetts but was seen as an eyesore by critics who feared it would tarnish scenic views and damage New Hampshire's tourism industry.
The Site Evaluation Committee voted 7-0 against the project over concerns about its impact on local business, tourism and development in the region, especially in the northern part of the state. The decision, which can be appealed, is a stunning setback for a project that first was proposed in 2010 and, after countless hearings and protests, appeared to be a done deal.
The $1.6 billion plan was set to bring hydropower from Canada by creating a transmission line through New Hampshire for customers in southern New England. The surprising decision comes a week after the project was selected from among dozens of bids to supply renewable energy in Massachusetts. It would have transmitted enough hydropower for about a million homes.
"We're pleased, to say the least," said Jane Difley, president of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. "This stands as a great victory for New Hampshire, our forests, and our landscape. It's been a long, arduous battle, but New Hampshire has always been worth it."
The utility behind the project, Eversource, said it was "shocked and outraged" by the decision, saying the ruling "failed to comply with New Hampshire law and did not reflect the substantial evidence on the record."
"As a result, the most viable near-term solution to the region's energy challenges, as well as $3 billion of NH job, tax, and other benefits, are now in jeopardy," the company said in a statement. "Clearly, the SEC process is broken and this decision sends a chilling message to any energy project "
The company said it would consider an appeal as well as "reviewing all options for moving this critical clean energy project forward."
The Massachusetts attorney general's office said the decision raises concerns about the state's ability to begin receiving Canadian hydropower by 2020.
"At a minimum, it appears today's development requires re-evaluation of the selection of Northern Pass. The Attorney General's Office remains committed to an open and transparent review and we will be following this closely," said Chloe Gotsis, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Maura Healey.
The company that would have provided the power, Hydro-Quebec, said it was analyzing the decision. Several other bids to supply renewable energy to Massachusetts were counting on getting hydro, wind or a combination from the company.
Supporters including unions and Republican Gov. Chris Sununu have long argued the project will create jobs, bring development to the northern part of the state and reduce the price of energy.
"Frankly stunned and disappointed by both the timing and outcome of today's decisions from the Site Evaluation Committee," Sununu said in a statement. "To deny 1100MW of clean, renewable energy and more than 1,000 jobs for New Hampshire is a mistake."
Opponents led by scores of small town officials, property owners and environmentalists said they worried that the transmission line towers — some as high as 155 feet — would destroy scenic views, reduce property values and hurt tourism in a part of the state that includes the White Mountain National Forest. They also argued the project offers few benefits to New Hampshire, since much of the power is slated to go to customers in Massachusetts.
Many have said they would support the project if all of the transmission lines were buried. The company amended its proposal in 2015 to include the burial of 60 miles of the line mostly around the White Mountain National Forest. It argued that burying the lines entirely would raise the cost by $1 billion, making the project economically impractical.
Alex Ray, who lives in the town of Holderness near where the transmission line would be built and runs the Common Man Family of Restaurants in New Hampshire, said the vote shows that residents in the northern part of the state were finally being heard.
"I'm elated," Ray said. "First of all, everything has an impact. This one would have had a very long-term, negative impact on the values, the serenity of North Country residents. There are better ways to do this and apparently the powers to be — Eversource and Hydro-Quebec — couldn't find a way to do it in a way that was accommodating to concerned citizens."
The company already was talking confidently earlier this week of starting construction in April after getting its approval and finishing the project by 2020.
The project had formal contracts with suppliers, a labor agreement with construction managers and unions and had spent significant sums of money on community development projects to win support.
It's also been granted permits by the Energy Department and the U.S. Forest Service and has the support of Massachusetts energy officials. It still needed a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit related to its impact on wetlands and the power supplier, Hydro-Quebec, needs project approval from the national electric board in Canada.