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Northern Pass foes urge more research into burying lines

New Hampshire Union Leader

September 14. 2013 11:28PM

An electric utility proposes a power transmission project to bring 1,200 megawatts of electricity across nearly 200 miles of terrain, much of it in a scenic, mountainous area. Years of public opposition ensues. A law is enacted limiting the use of eminent domain. Three years and millions of dollars later, the sponsoring utility withdraws its proposal.

According to the local newspaper, "As news of the plan's demise spread through area communities, local officials, leaders of citizens groups and individuals who live along the proposed route expressed joy that their homes and neighborhoods are no longer threatened by towering poles."

Except for the ending, we could be talking about Northern Pass, the proposal to have 180 miles of high-voltage power line bring hydroelectric power from Quebec into the New England grid, passing through New Hampshire.

Opponents of the project hope it will meet the same end as the New York Regional Interconnect, an ill-fated 2006 proposal to build 190 miles of power line, much of it through the Catskills, until public opposition and a change in federal regulations forced consideration of an alternative - the Champlain Hudson Power Express (CHPE).

With Hydro-Quebec as a partner, the CHPE will extend 333 miles through Quebec to the Canadian border and into the New York City area, with lines buried underground or underwater.

Northern Pass opponents plan to push the question - Why not here? - at another round of hearings hosted by the Department of Energy during the week of Sept. 23.

The idea of burying the lines for the Northern Pass is nothing new. Opponents even have a blog called "Bury the Northern Pass." But the progress of underground projects in New York and Maine, improvements in technology and a recent decision by Northern Pass itself to bury a small portion of the line, fueled new enthusiasm for the idea, at least among Northern Pass opponents.

Far too costly

Public Service of New Hampshire has consistently maintained that going underground with the entire length of the project would render it economically unfeasible, with costs of $15 million to $20 million a mile, compared with $3 million a mile on an overland route.

Northern Pass opponents cite much lower cost estimates for underground that have been presented in the New York and Maine projects. Earlier this year, the New York Public Service Commission approved Champlain Hudson's application for a state siting certificate with estimates that underground cable, installation and engineering will total $714 million, or $5.4 million a mile.

Bangor Hydro and National Grid have completed a detailed feasibility study of the Northeast Energy Link, a proposed 227-mile underground transmission project along the Interstate 95 corridor in Maine, that suggests a price of $5.7 million a mile.

PSNH spokesman Martin Murray said the Maine and New York projects are still in the preliminary phases, and no one knows for sure what the underground transmission would actually cost until the work begins. Murray cited a transmission project through the Chino Hills area in California, where residents have been fighting an overland proposal first floated by Southern California Edison in 2009. Regulators in July approved plans to go underground for a 3.5-mile stretch at a cost of $224 million.

A 'red herring'

Christophe Courchesne, a staff attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation in New Hampshire, called the Chino Hills example a "red herring."

He said the Chino Hills project is high-voltage alternating current, which is more costly and challenging to install than the high-voltage direct current technology companies such as ABB Transmission and Siemens are now offering. "The Chino Hills line will be buried in an existing transmission corridor through a steep, tight urban area," he said. "No one is seriously entertaining undergrounding in the PSNH corridor."

If transmission lines were to go underground in New Hampshire, they would most likely follow major highway corridors, as has been proposed in Maine, not PSNH rights of way for existing power lines, Courchesne said, suggesting that PSNH opposition to underground was based more on its desire to monetize its existing right of way than to find the best option for transmission.

"PSNH stands to benefit substantially in several ways from using its existing corridor," he said. If approved, Northern Pass would generate transmission fees, finance the reconstruction of 90 miles of existing transmission lines, and generate an undisclosed amount of revenue for PSNH in potential right-of-way rental fees from Hydro-Quebec.

Added benefit

If the transmission lines were installed underground along state highways, as has been proposed in Maine, PSNH would still get transmission fees, but the state would benefit from its ownership of the right of way.

"Our view is that, given all the difficulties and challenges that PSNH is currently facing, Northern Pass has become an effort to sustain that company, as opposed to an effort to really benefit the state of New Hampshire with the type of clearly available approach that would benefit state coffers and answer a lot of public concerns," Courchesne said.

The state tried to take a hard look at underground transmission in 2012 through SB 361, which established a commission to "study the feasibility of establishing energy infrastructure corridors within existing transportation rights of way."

Led by state Sen. Jeanie Forrester, R-Meredith, the commission delivered four recommendations in late 2012, three of which have spurred no action. The commission recommended a task force be created to fully explore the cost and potential benefits of underground transmission lines along state highways; that any utility proposing an overhead project be required to present underground alternatives; a one-year moratorium on elective transmission projects not required by the grid operator for reliability; and development of a comprehensive state energy policy.

The $1 million question

A state energy policy is in the works, but the other three recommendations got nowhere with Gov. Maggie Hassan or the state Legislature, even though Hassan has encouraged PSNH to consider extending underground options beyond the 8 miles PSNH recently proposed in the northernmost section of the route.

Forrester said she was frustrated that the commission could not get any cost estimates on underground transmission. "PSNH keeps telling us how expensive it would be, but they've never done a study to actually figure it out," she said.

The Union Leader submitted inquiries to three companies that install underground power lines - Anbaric Transmission, Siemens USA and ABB Transmission - none of which would provide cost ranges or even the cost per mile of recent projects.

"There is, unfortunately, no average we can cite," wrote Melissa London, ABB media relations manager for North America. "Costs can vary quite dramatically. Factors that drive costs include voltage, construction, geographical location (elevation, water, rock, etc.) and so on. We've found that costs are so site-specific that there is no way to generalize."

Anbaric officials told Forrester that a site-specific study of underground costs along the Northern Pass proposed route or state highways could be done for about $1 million. PSNH, which has spent $40 million acquiring land that may not even be needed for the project, will not pay for such a study, said Murray.

"The issue has been studied to death," he said. "We already know the answer. Perhaps there are a few who still question it, but the truth is fairly simple. It (underground) is not practical; it is not economic."

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