Northern Pass backers say they're confident of 2015 agreement, power could go online in 2018

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CONCORD, New Hampshire — The utility company proposing a 187-mile electrical transmission line across New Hampshire said Friday that it's confident state and federal regulators will agree to a plan by the middle of 2015.

On a call with investors, Northeast Utilities says if the proposal is approved, construction could begin on the $1.4 billion Northern Pass in 2016. Power from Canada could begin flowing by the second half of 2018.

Northern Pass would carry 1,200 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 1.2 million homes — to power-hungry southern New England markets.

Opponents say the mostly overland lines would scar the landscape, cut property values and hurt tourism. They want the company to bury the lines.

Project backers say it would create jobs and provide clean hydropower. They say burying the lines would be too expensive and impractical in a rugged state.

Energy has become a key issue in the Northeast and New England in particular as costs increase. One of the issues is a limited capacity to move natural gas into the region so Northern Pass supporters say cleaner hydropower from Canada is a good alternative.

"The need for Northern Pass has never been more evident," said Lee Olivier, the company's executive vice president of enterprise energy strategy and business development.

There are several regulatory hurdles still ahead, and the process is falling behind the initial schedule. A change in the legislature, with both the Senate and House of Representatives now controlled by Republicans, may also signal a change in the regulatory future of the project.

During Friday's call, the company said the U.S. Department of Energy expects to have a draft environmental impact study completed by March, instead of next month. Public comments will be accepted on the draft before a final study is prepared.

Once that study is completed, the company will file an application with the state's revamped site evaluation committee, which then has 60 days to determine if the application if complete.

When the application is determined to be complete, the state has a year to approve or deny it, not the nine months required under the old format.

A spokesman for Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan said that she remains opposed to a mostly overland project and that the company must fully investigate burying more of the lines.

"She continues to encourage the company to reach out and listen to the concerns of Granite Staters, and if they are going to move forward, put forward a new approach that protects our scenic views and beautiful natural resources that are critical to our economy," spokesman William Hinkle said.

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