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Dave Solomon's Power Plays: Vermont hydro project 'leapfrogs' Northern Pass


The Department of Energy on Wednesday released the draft environmental impact statement for the New England Clean Power Link, recommending a presidential permit for the plan to bring hydroelectricity from Quebec into New England through Vermont.

Anyone who’s been following the Northern Pass debate might want to take a look at the 280-page report on the Vermont project to get an idea of what’s in store for New Hampshire when the EIS for the Northern Pass comes out later this summer.

The application for the 154-mile, 1,000 megawatt transmission line through Vermont, which is mostly under water or underground, was only filed a year ago on May 22. Northern Pass opponents say this shows how fast an electric transmission project can proceed when it is underground, and that Eversource should take notice.

Transmission Developers Inc., a New York-based company, first announced plans for the Clean Power Link in late 2013, applied to the Department of Energy in May of last year, and in December applied for its state permits. Now, the state permitting process in Vermont is the only major hurdle left for the project.

“The state of Vermont and its citizens, who have the final say on siting, have yet to weigh in officially on the draft EIS, but the unprecedented rapidity with which the New England Clean Power Link has moved from application to the draft EIS shows what initial community support does for a project’s chances of success,” said Susan Schibanoff of Easton, a member of the Northern Pass opposition group, Responsible Energy Action.

“This EIS also paves the way for seeing burial of high-voltage cable in transportation corridors as viable and desirable,” she said

Digesting the draft

The draft is rife with references to the desirability of underground cable for transmission projects, with observations such as, “operation of the project would pose no risk to public health and safety because most of the cable would be buried underground,” and “operation, maintenance, and emergency repairs would have little or no effect on land use in the overland segment because the proposed transmission cables would be underground within existing rights of way.”

Eversource executives have filed an alternative proposal for a 1,000-megawatt transmission line with the grid operator ISO-New England, suggesting that the company is considering burying more of the Northern Pass lines if that’s what’s necessary to win approval.

“We’re still digesting the draft, but it is interesting to note that from the perspective of this EIS, burial of the proposed Vermont line along the road is not only feasible but has significant advantages,” said Jack Savage, spokesman for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.

“NECPL still has important permitting steps ahead, but it certainly seems that by adopting the new technology and focusing on burial, it has avoided controversy and leapfrogged Northern Pass,” he said.

Eversource spokesperson Lauren Collins said the recommendation of a presidential permit for the Vermont project is a positive development for the energy needs of New England, but that comparison to the Northern Pass project, first proposed in 2010, is disingenuous given the vast differences in geography.

Laying cable along the mushy bottom of Lake Champlain is a lot different than blasting through New Hampshire granite, for example.

“It is good to see another energy project making progress because it is clear that New England is in dire need of multiple new sources of power,” she said.

Similar solutions

Northern Pass expects its own draft Environmental Impact Statement later next month, and plans to begin the state permitting process in New Hampshire shortly thereafter.

“While these projects propose similar solutions to New England’s energy challenges they also have notable differences,” Collins said. “Northern Pass remains the only large-scale transmission project in development in the region with a confirmed supplier of power and an interconnection approval. Our shared electric grid needs both of these projects and more if we are to address high energy costs and a rapidly dwindling supply due to power plant retirements.”

Eversource may decry any comparison of the two projects as apples to oranges, but Northern Pass opponents will seize on the Clean Power Link EIS as proof that under-grounding is preferred and affordable.

“It shows that if you go underground, it is more expensive, but the process is so much quicker, with so much less public resistance,” said Jim Dannis, another member of Responsible Energy Action, “And as the EIS says, you basically avoid environmental and visual impact issues.”

The draft environmental impact statement for the N.E. Clean Power Link can be read at http://necplinkeis.com/

dsolomon@unionleader.com

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