July 18, 2014

Northern Pass Updates: DOE Releases Preliminary Alternatives Report; a Northern Pass Competitor Files for Presidential Permit; and NU Considers a Line in Vermont

Northern Pass opponents have been waiting to learn to what extent the U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE) listened to the voluminous public comments regarding the need to analyze alternatives to the proposed overhead transmission line, such as burial along transportation corridors. The fear has been that the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) would be completed without serious study of such alternatives.
Prompted by requests from the New Hampshire Congressional Delegation, the DOE released on May 1 a preliminary report outlining the alternatives that will be studied as part of the EIS for the proposed Northern Pass transmission line.
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 project’s 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 permittable 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... ."

Increased Interest in Vermont
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."
Two other underground transmission proposals, both from Transmission Developers Inc. (TDI) are proposed for Vermont/New York. The Champlain-Hudson Express, an underground and underwater 330-mile 1,000MW project that would deliver power from Quebec to New York, is well ahead of Northern Pass in the permitting process. And in May, TDI applied for a Presidential Permit for its New England Clean Power Link, another underwater and underground transmission line that would deliver 1000MW of Hydro Quebec power to Ludlow, Vt., where it would connect to the New England grid. TDI projects a 2019 completion date and $1.2 billion price tag for that approximately 150-mile project.

Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that earlier this spring Northeast Utilities fielded their own proposals to connect to the regional grid in Vermont. NU denied that those proposals were meant as a hedge against the stymied Northern Pass project in New Hampshire, but would not say how much electricity would be carried nor what the source of power would be.

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