Whether Eversource will be approved to build a 12.9-mile high-voltage transmission line that traverses mostly through Durham and Newington could be decided before the beginning of December.

Whatever the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee decides isn’t likely to be the end of it. Appeals of the decision could land the case in the state Supreme Court, much like Eversource Energy’s Northern Pass proposal that was rejected by the SEC earlier this year. The Supreme Court accepted Eversouce's appeal Friday.

Eversource President and CEO Bill Quinlan is quick to point out the difference between the two projects. The Northern Pass would deliver renewable hydropower from Canada to customers in southern New England through a 192-mile transmission line in New Hampshire.

“It’s a more discretionary and elective,” Quinlan said, calling it a public policy project to reduce carbon emissions. Its Seacoast application, dubbed the Seacoast Reliability Project, is to address critical electricity infrastructure needs. “It’s an important distinction,” he said.

“We’re in a situation where the demands of residents and businesses in the Seacoast have used up all the capacity on the transmission grid. To serve future demands, we need to add more capacity into the region,” Quinlan said in an interview this past week.

If the project is not approved, Quinlan believes there could be situations when the demands of electricity customers outstrip the supply leading to possible rolling blackouts.

“It becomes increasingly likely if that project is not approved,” he said.

According to Eversource, the upgrade is needed because the demand for electricity in the booming Seacoast is growing at twice the rate of the rest of the state. The company estimates by 2020 the Seacoast will consume 25 percent of all the electricity in New Hampshire.

This past week, residents of Newington and Durham who attended an SEC public hearing were unified in their opposition. As James Belanger of Newington said, “Residents disagree about the usual small town politics, but protecting this tiny little bubble of rural Newington is a longstanding sentiment that unifies this town.”

The same could be applied to Durham and the Little Bay that separates the two.

Some folks oppose the project because they say it won’t be necessary from the increasing use of solar energy. Others who oppose the route believe it could disturb historical areas or ruin the rural nature of the towns from an aesthetic point of view. Nearly all were opposed to Eversource’s plan to jet plow the transmission line underneath Little Bay, a technique where water jets would lay the cable under the bay’s floor that is reburied as the silt resettles. Despite the pleas about jet plowing to the SEC, the Department of Environmental Services has already given conditional approval to Eversource to lay cable under the bay if the SEC approves the project.

Some residents conceded the need for additional energy, but questioned why Eversource couldn't choose less invasive alternatives.

Quinlan in Eversource's SEC application says the proposed route “was selected through the stakeholder review process facilitated by the Independent System Operators of New England. ISO-NE is responsible for planning the regional transmission network and approving project costs that are included in regional transmission rates charged to all customers in New England.”

Through the ISO-NE review process, two alternatives were reviewed: the current one and the Gosling Road substation with 345/115 kilovolt autotransformer upgrade. Each option would require its own set of other upgrades to other substations and transmission lines. One clear difference with the Gosling Road alternative is transmission wires would not need to travel through residential and historic areas of Newington and Durham, and it would not have to pass underneath Little Bay. Another clear difference is the price tag. In 2012, the total project cost for Gosling was $136 million compared to $110.7 million for the current route. In 2017, Eversource said the Gosling Road project price was closer to $90 million more costly than the current proposed route.

Eversource filed its application in 2016 and met with area stakeholders in earnest with details of the project in 2015, though there was some meetings with town officials in 2013. Durham Town Administrator Todd Selig said the 2013 meeting he had was brief and Eversource officials said they were considering transmission lines through existing rights of way through the town as well as other routes. But he said officials didn't provide any other details.

According to documents, an ISO-NE committee selected the current route in 2013 after it was proposed in 2012. The need for more transmission line capability in the Seacoast was identified through a needs assessment that began in 2010 with a final report that published in 2011.

'You don't know what don't know'

Newington officials and residents have said the town’s master plan has thoughtfully reserved space for commercial and industrial uses while preserving historic residential areas. The SRP would go through the historic areas where developers are required to bury utility lines. Eversource has agreed to bury parts, but not all lines through Newington.

In 2017, the town of Newington sought SEC approval to consult with ISO-NE regarding the Gosling alternative. McLane Middleton attorney Barry Needleman, who represents Eversource, filed an objection to the request.

“Newington had an opportunity long ago to participate in (the ISO-NE) process through various paths," he stated. "For whatever reason, it chose not to do so. It cannot now essentially seek a rehearing of that ISO decision … many years after the decision was made and long after resources have been irretrievably committed to pursue the selected solution.”

Newington said it never received a notice about the ISO-NE process. “Even if the town’s assertion is accurate, it is not an issue that is properly before the SEC, nor is it something the SEC should consider in deciding whether to issue a certificate,” the objection stated.

In a footnote, the filing stated Eversource is “mindful of the fact it still must secure approval from the SEC” and “certainly does not believe such approval is a foregone conclusion.” In another footnote, it states of Newington’s ISO-NE consulting request that Newington “fails to acknowledge that the applicant has completed construction on all the other projects that make up the” suite of projects that make up the Seacoast Reliability Project.

Former state Executive Councilor and state representative Dudley Dudley of Durham said residents and town officials could have been involved if it kept up with every action of the ISO-NE. “You don’t know what you don’t know,” she said.

SEC Administrator Pamela Monroe said whether the nine-member SEC subcommittee could approve an alternative route than what Eversource applied for would be up to the discretion committee members. But generally speaking, she said SEC subcommittees tend to focus on the application before them, which in this case is he 12.9-mile route from Madbury to Portsmouth.

SEC members will continue next week with public hearings with Eversource and intervenors. They are scheduled to begin public deliberations toward the end of November when they will come to a final decision.