A week after New Hampshire regulators soundly rejected a $1.6 billion hydropower project, Massachusetts officials are demanding to know whether Northern Pass still is a viable option for delivering clean energy to their state by 2020.
The project was set to deliver hydropower from Canada to customers in southern New England through a 192-mile transmission line in New Hampshire. But the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee, in a unanimous vote last week, citied the potential impact of the project on local communities, businesses and the region's tourism industry.
Now both states, and a host of other bidders for Massachusetts' largest-ever clean energy procurement, are wondering what happens next.
Judith Judson, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, has asked the three companies that would distribute the power from Northern Pass -- Eversource, Unitil and National Grid -- to advise her by Friday whether they want to continue negotiating over Northern Pass or turn to one of the dozens of other suitors for the contract.
The New Hampshire vote "has the potential to significantly impact or render infeasible the project's ability to deliver clean energy with the timeframe proposed by the bidder," Judson wrote.
Northern Pass is being built by Eversource and would get its power from Hydro-Quebec. Among the project's strengths was its original promise to be online by 2020.
Martin Murray, a spokesman for Eversource, said the company remains confident the project will move forward. It plans to request a re-hearing from the Site Evaluation Committee. If that fails, it could plead its case to the state Supreme Court.
"We feel we have a very strong argument to seek re-hearing," Murray said. "We are hopeful they will grant the reconsideration, and we will then resume the process and earn our certificate."
The Site Evaluation Committee made a "flawed" and "hasty" decision, Murray said. He contends it voted before considering all the required parameters needed to approve or reject a project. The committee never considered an approval with conditions -- such as changes to the route demanded by opponents -- or solutions that might address concerns about the 155-foot towers.
The sense of urgency in Massachusetts is driven by several factors including a mandate for significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and the need to replace energy sources that have left or will soon leave the region's power grid. That includes the scheduled 2019 mothballing of the Pilgrim nuclear plant in Plymouth.
A 2016 Massachusetts law requires utilities to solicit long-term contracts with providers of offshore wind and other forms of clean energy, including hydroelectricity. A lead author of the law, former state Sen. Benjamin Downing, said Massachusetts should cut its losses and move on immediately to project that doesn't have major siting problems.
"I think the worst thing the state could do is compound the problem that it created in selecting Eversource and Northern Pass, by waiting for them to shake this out or fight this out legally," said Downing, now an executive with a Boston-based solar energy firm.
The selection of Northern Pass by a panel that included state officials and utility representatives was a mistake, Downing said, because the project relies solely on hydropower instead of mixing clean energy resources such as hydro and wind.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said in one respect it was "good news" that New Hampshire regulators acted quickly on Northern Pass, making it "possible for people to go back and consider their options." The Republican governor, however, has not offered an opinion as to what the next step should be.
If Northern Pass is jettisoned, other bidders are eager to come forward.
TDI New England, the company behind the proposed New England Clean Power Link, says it already has the permits it needs to provide energy to Massachusetts. The project would bring power 154 miles from Canada, down Lake Champlain and then across Vermont.
And National Grid, which backs a project known as the Granite State Power Link, won the support Wednesday of more than a dozen New Hampshire legislators. The project would bring 1,200 megawatts of wind power from Canada through an existing line that enters the U.S. at Norton, Vermont, and connects with an upgraded power line at Monroe, New Hampshire.
"The SEC decision should not be taken as a 'no' to energy projects in New Hampshire, but rather as an opportunity to refocus on the right project for our state," the legislators wrote in a letter to Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who has backed Northern Pass.