May 9, 2014

Preliminary Alternatives Report Released: What Does It Tell Us?

Prompted by requests from the New Hamphire Congressional Delegation, the U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE) released on May 1 a preliminary report (click here) outlining the alternatives that will be studied as part of the Evironmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the proposed Northern Pass transmission line.

Northern Pass opponents have been waiting to learn to what extent the DOE listened to the voluminous public comments regarding the need to analyze alternatives to the proposed overhead line, such as burial along transportation corridors. The fear has been that the EIS would be completed without serious study of such alternatives.

Now that the report is out, the rush is on to understand not only what it says but what it might mean for Northern Pass. The caveat, however, is that this is clearly a preliminary report. As the document itself notes,

"This Alternatives Addendum document briefly discusses alternatives that will, as of this time, be included in the draft EIS. However, this ongoing review may generate new information that results in changes or additions to, or reorganization of, the information presented below. DOE will use the information gathered during this process to identify which of the alternatives are reasonable."

In other words, if any one listed alternative is determined to be "unreasonable" by the DOE, it may get short shrift. The report goes on to say,

"The range of reasonable alternatives will be analyzed in detail in the draft EIS, including discussion of design specifics and an analysis of potential environmental impacts. DOE also will identify those alternatives that are not reasonable and, in the draft EIS, will briefly discuss the reasons those alternatives were eliminated from detailed study."

The Alternatives Being Analyzed
There are 24 alternatives summarized in the report, including the so-called "Proposed Action" (the largely overhead line that Hydro-Quebec and Northeast Utilities want to build) and the "No Action" alternative (what happens if no line at all is built).

Among the rest are 10 variations on burial of some or all of the line, which suggests that burial options are likely to be analyzed in some detail. Those variations include burying only 10 out of 187 miles to avoid overhead lines through the White Mountain National Forest, to "porpoising" above and below ground, to complete burial either along the proposed right of way or under roadways or rail corridors.

There are a few surprises, such as the possibility of locating the conversion station (the electricity would travel the greatest distance as direct current, or DC, but must be converted to alternating current, or AC, to be accepted into the New England grid) in Deerfield instead of Franklin as proposed by Northern Pass. This possibility has not been part of any significant public discussion to date.

One alternative would apparently consider a terminus other than Deerfield, and thus, as the report states, "Specific alternate locations for the projects terminus substations were not suggested, but different locations could significantly expand the range of possible routes." Another alternative considers placing the transmission line in an above-ground "tube" or pipeline, while another considers using navigable waterways, such as the Merrimack River. It's unknown to what extent such alternatives will get close scrutiny.

What's Not Among the Alternatives
None of potential alternatives listed in the report contemplate an international border crossing other than the one requested by Hydro-Quebec and Northeast Utilities in Pittsburg, N.H. This is notable for several reasons, not the least of which is that absent eminent domain, all overhead and underground routes that start at that point are blocked by the Forest Society's ownership of the Washburn Family Forest in adjoining Clarksville, including land underneath Route 3. Northern Pass has yet to secure a legally permitable route, and the alternatives being studied by the DOE don't resolve that issue.

The sole Pittsburg starting point is also notable in that the shortest route for power to be delivered from Quebec to power-demand centers in southern New England--especially if buried along roadways such as I-91--would not begin there.

Also missing among the alternatives is any consideration of so-called HVDC Light technology, the kind of buried transmission cable to be used in similar projects in New York (Champlain-Hudson Express and Vermont (New England Clean Power Link).

Rather, it would appear that the DOE for the most part has chosen to study alternatives that start with the project developers' own assumptions--that the line would cross into the U.S. in Pittsburg, N.H., and proceed to Deerfield, N.H., using the limits of old-school transmission technology. This is somewhat less than some stakeholders had hoped for.  Gov. Maggie Hassan in her statement about the report, saw fit to note, "I continue to believe that, with any energy project, New Hampshire deserves the latest technologies in order to protect what we all love about our state... ."

Meanwhile, during a visit to New Hampshire, Vermont's Gov. Peter Shumlin offered to work with Gov. Hassan to look into using Interstate 91 as a potential route for a buried line.

"If anyone can get it done it’s Governor Hassan, myself, and others," he said. "We would love to find solutions to get our southern neighbors the juice they need without destroying our pristine forests."

For an additional take on what the report does and does not accomplish, read this from the Conservation Law Foundation's Christophe Courchesne. The Union Leader's coverage can be read here, and the Concord Monitor's story is available here.

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