August 1, 2014

Why Burying Transmission Cables is a Viable Alternative

By Will Abbott

From the beginning, the main issue the Forest Society has had with Northern Pass has been with how the project proposes to bring electrons to the marketplace.  We are not philosophically opposed to importing electricity from Canada, but we are opposed to the 180-mile scar that the proposed overhead towers would create on New Hampshire landscapes from Pittsburg to Deerfield.
If the power is needed, or even desired, we believe there is new technology available that makes it possible for New Hampshire to accommodate Northern Pass in a way that is good for the state, for Quebec and for the utility proposing to build Northern Pass (Northeast Utilities, owner of Public Service Company of New Hampshire).

The new technology involves a buried high-voltage, direct current cable designed to be placed in a trench that dissipates the heat from the cables. By using a trench dug along an existing transportation right of way, like an interstate highway or a continuous railroad right of way where the state already owns the land beneath the right of way, Northern Pass could be built in a way that avoids the adverse visual impacts of overhead lines.  In addition, the state would generate a little extra money for its depleted highway fund by leasing the right of way to the utility.

One company that manufactures this new cable calls its product “HVDC Light.”  The company, a Swiss firm by the name of ABB, Inc., is so attracted to the future of this product that they have recently completed a new $400 million manufacturing facility in North Carolina to manufacture this and other cable products.  A representative from ABB has testified before New Hampshire legislative committees to explain how its product works.  The cable itself costs $2 million a mile, and, based on previous installations, company representatives estimate that trench costs for a previously disturbed corridor are in the range of $3-$4 million a mile.  This makes the total likely cost significantly below the claimed expense of $20 million a mile being made by representatives of Northeast Utilities.

If southern New England states need electrons from Quebec to meet their electric needs, and if they prefer this over building new generating facilities in their own states, it only seems fair that they should pay for the cost of burying Northern Pass through New Hampshire.  Or, at least they should be willing to pay the differential cost between overhead lines and buried lines on existing state-owned rights of way.  The N.H. Department of Transportation has already identified New Hampshire’s  three existing interstate highways (plus Route 101 from Manchester to the Seacoast) as appropriate corridors for such buried facilities to be studied further.  Maybe Hydro-Quebec can partner with the southern New England states to share these added costs. 

The decision to site such an extension-cord facility in New Hampshire remains with the state and its people.   Northeast Utilities and Hydro-Quebec should not be allowed to jam overhead power lines down New Hampshire’s throat -- particularly in a situation like this where the electrons are not needed to keep the lights on.  Northern Pass is being built as a for-profit enterprise to benefit the shareholders of Northeast Utilities and the ratepayers of Quebec.  They are in business to make money (which is not a bad thing) and they have the right to propose a project that makes them more money.  They should not, however, be entitled to make money at the expense of one of New Hampshire’s greatest assets.  They are not entitled to scar the landscapes that are the social and economic fabric of our communities.

If the people behind Northern Pass want to build a project in New Hampshire that has broad public support, they should withdraw the project they have proposed and offer a new project that completely buries the new facility along appropriate state-owned transportation corridors.   Otherwise, the project should be abandoned altogether.

Will Abbott is vice president of Policy and Reservation Stewardship at the Forest Society.

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