I authored this recent editorial, which appeared in the July 24, 2011 edition of the Portsmouth Herald:

“We’ll create lots of new jobs! We’ll ease property taxes with lots of new taxable property! You’ll feel the savings of slashed electric bills, too!”

It’s quite a set of enticing claims, and for backers of the proposed Northern Pass project, it was a sales pitch designed to sail through a population anxious from underemployment and over-taxation. But the grassroots push-back in New Hampshire has been powerful — particularly in the North Country, where the need for jobs and local tax revenue is greatest — and where it is matched only by the power of the arguments against the Northern Pass project.

Northern Pass is a proposed project between Northeast Utilities (which owns PSNH) and Massachusetts-based NStar. They are planning to build an estimated $1.1 billion high-voltage line through 180 miles of New Hampshire. The conglomerate would then lease the line to Hydro-Quebec, who would theoretically sell its electricity to the regional power pool. Because of safety concerns, the lines would be roughly twice as high as standard power lines and higher than most trees. These lines also require right-of-way cuts of 150 feet. Perhaps most problematic for many, the path would likely require about 40 miles of right-of-way access not already used for existing, smaller power lines — sparking major concerns over the use of eminent domain to take private property for the benefit of a private entity.

There’s a lot there about which to be concerned — but the promise of new jobs, new revenue sources, lower utility bills…;that should make the people of New Hampshire at least consider it, yes? Well, consider this:

1) New local property tax revenue? While proponents of the Northern Pass say the poles and wires represent new property tax revenue for affected communities, this represents only a small piece of the impact. Every private residence impacted either directly (going through their property) or indirectly (impacting their view or desirability) sees its property value diminished. How much? A Dalton family that could be impacted had a thorough study done of its property in May, and was told the market value would be diminished 63 percent. PSNH had its own appraisal done, and claimed it was “only” a 10 percent to 26 percent decrease in value. Let’s say PSNH (rather than the homeowner) is correct. This is an argument in their favor? To raise the same amount of revenue to pay for local services, the town of Dalton will almost certainly have to raise taxes on those households not directly impacted by the line’s construction. This project is more likely to depress existing property values, and depress future development, by a greater amount than any new taxable property will generate revenues.

2) New jobs? Proponents claim up to 1,200 temporary jobs will be created from this project. Once the project is finished, virtually all the jobs are, too. And once the line is constructed, the ability of local governments to fund existing local government jobs (public safety, education, public works) will be diminished (see point #1) — costing a marginal number of long-term jobs in the impacted communities. Tourism industry-related jobs are also an important part of what remains of the economy in the proposed paths of the line. It is universally understood that this project will not enhance tourism in the North Country.

3) Lower utility bills? Not so much. The proposed line would bring about 1,200 megawatts of electricity to New England — a significant amount of additional supply. In theory, increased supply should mean lower prices for consumers across New England. There are two big problems, though. First, New England does not have a supply problem — we currently use less electricity than we are capable of generating. This means the market will respond less to additional supply — and prices will drop very little. Second, much of the electricity that Northern Pass delivers will never be consumed by New Hampshire residents, because Northeast Utilities and NStar will purchase these megawatts from Hydro Québec to satisfy their customers in Massachusetts and Connecticut. This means customers in those states are more likely to enjoy some price reductions. This creates an extremely unattractive scenario for New Hampshire — a Canadian private entity, making money, and producing electricity, for customers in Massachusetts and Connecticut. In effect, using New Hampshire as the equivalent of a power superhighway without exit ramps.

In a time of great economic anxiety, it would be understandable to see those arguably most impacted — residents of the north country — quickest to embrace this project. But in last spring’s North Country town meetings, overwhelming numbers of residents expressed disapproval for the project. And in so doing, they expressed their value of the long view over short-term gain, something I admire greatly. And as the nephew of a retired dairy farmer in Pittsburg, and the grandson of a grandfather who lived in West Stewartstown, I agree with them, too.

Steve Marchand is a former Portsmouth mayor and principal owner of The Marchand Group, a consulting firm.

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