The Northern Pass Alternatives (Part I): Going Underground

Christophe Courchesne

First post in a series

From the very beginning, CLF has advocated for a rigorous review of the full range of alternatives to the Northern Pass transmission project. This evaluation is what federal and state law require, and for good reason: comparing the project with its alternatives is a critical step to reaching a well-informed decision on what is in the best interests of affected communities, the state of New Hampshire, and our region’s energy future. We have good company in this advocacy, from the Governor of New Hampshire to the roughly 1,400 organizations and members of the public who discussed alternatives in their comments on the scope of the Environmental Impact Statement for Northern Pass.

Northern Pass alternatives were a major focus of CLF’s own final set of scoping comments, filed with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) earlier this month. You can read CLF’s comments here (pdf) or download the full filing, including exhibits, here (28 MB zip). For those keeping score, over the last three years of DOE’s proceedings on Northern Pass, CLF filed six written scoping submissions, testified at two scoping meetings, made a protest filing against the project’s original permit application, and played a leading role in six joint filings with other leading environmental groups and other stakeholders. In CLF’s filings so far and in our advocacy to come, we are deeply committed to ensuring that DOE and the other federal and state agencies reviewing Northern Pass seriously and comprehensively study alternatives; if they do their jobs, we have every expectation that the process will surface promising, viable alternatives to Northern Pass’s current, flawed proposal that would provide comparable energy resources for New England. At that point, the project’s developer will need to change course and pursue such an alternative, or step aside for others to do so.

In its permit applications, public statements, and advertising campaign, Northern Pass has done everything it can to denigrate and dismiss alternatives to its preferred route and approach, despite overwhelming opposition to the proposal from local communities and a diverse coalition of stakeholders and New Hampshire leaders. In this and several future posts, I will draw out some of the actual facts and figures about alternatives to the Northern Pass, as presented in CLF’s final comments to DOE.

Underground Transmission Technology

Burial of transmission lines—especially in transportation corridors—has garnered substantial attention, as it would avoid the visual impacts associated with new overhead transmission lines, would utilize innovative technology, would potentially protect the lines from weather and other reliability threats, and could provide a meaningful new source of state revenue, especially for transportation needs. New Hampshire’s environmental community jointly requested that DOE study underground alternatives to Northern Pass, and New Hampshire leaders like Governor Hassan and Senator Ayotte have called for more of Northern Pass project to use underground technology.

Just last week, despite considerable lobbying by Northern Pass, a committee of the New Hampshire House advanced a bill that would establish a preference in New Hampshire law for transmission projects that utilize underground technology. This bill builds on the work of a 2012 legislative commission, which concluded in its final report that:

  • “Underground transmission technology is being used extensively throughout the U.S. and internationally,”
  • “Testimony suggests that underground corridors may increase the reliability and security of the electric transmission system,” and
  • “[T]estimony suggests that underground transmission facilities on appropriate state-owned rights-of-way may be technically and financially competitive with other transmission designs and locations.”
The legislature will act on this bill in early 2014, and additional legislation designating state-owned corridors for underground transmission projects, similar to a state law in Maine, is expected as well.
northern-pass-alternatives

Inelfe underground transmission project between France and Spain

Around the Northeast, transmission developers are pursuing underground (and underwater) projects. These projects use “high voltage direct current” or HVDC technology, and many would employ advanced HVDC cables from companies like ABB and Siemens, first developed in the 1990s, with dramatically lower costs and simpler and less invasive installation methods than traditional underground technology. The list of these projects includes the Champlain Hudson Power Express in New York and the New England Clean Power Link in Vermont (both to be developed by Transmission Developers, Inc.), and the Northeast Energy Link along the I-95 corridor between Maine and Massachusetts (to be developed by National Grid and Emera). (Other projects like Anbaric Transmission’s Green Line would link Maine and Massachusetts with underwater HVDC cable.) These projects’ common theme is that they, like Northern Pass, would connect energy resources to the north with customers to the south.

From the underground projects’ public filings and other information, CLF compiled a basic comparison of underground HVDC transmission’s characteristics and costs. We also referenced a white paper, authored by an independent transmission consultant, that describes a conceptual underground alternative to the 140-mile HVDC portion of Northern Pass that would use overhead lines. We assembled this information, with basic details about each project, in a one-page fact sheet, which you can download here. (All the details and references are in CLF’s final scoping comments to DOE, linked above.) Here are the specific costs of going underground with advanced HVDC technology in transportation corridors:

  • Champlain Hudson Power Express: $5.4 million per mile
  • Northern Pass Underground HVDC Alternative: $5.3 million per mile
  • Northeast Energy Link: $5.7 million per mile

For its part, Northern Pass has offered a variety of much higher estimates for underground technology: for example, “5-10 times” overhead lines (see page 65 of Northern Pass’s amended permit application) and $13 million per mile for the proposed 7.5 mile underground section of the project in West Stewartstown (see page 67 of Northern Pass’s amended permit application). With the context of cost estimates for competitor projects, Northern Pass’s estimates appear deliberately inflated and unserious. In some public statements, Northern Pass seems to be asserting astronomical costs based on the unrealistic and self-serving assumption that the line can only be built in PSNH’s rugged transmission corridor (an assumption that rules out virtually all alternatives to Northern Pass’s current proposal); in other statements, Northern Pass is citing multipliers that apply to burial of high-voltage alternating-current lines, which requires different, more expensive technology.

For reference, Northern Pass’s $1.4 billion overall cost is $7.5 million per mile. This number is not directly comparable with the specific cost estimates for underground technology—a real comparison is not possible because Northern Pass’s developer has not released more detailed cost estimates of the kind provided for the Champlain Hudson project or reflected in the white paper, which show specific material and installation costs. But Northern Pass’s overall cost per mile is quite comparable with the overall cost per mile of the recently announced New England Clean Power Link, which is $8 million per mile.

What does this information tell us? It shows that a carefully and responsibly routed transmission project can go underground with advanced technology at a cost that is competitive with overhead technology. Indeed, underground transmission appears to be a viable and innovative option, and legislative efforts to enact a preference for underground projects are well-grounded. As for Northern Pass, the Department of Energy and other permitting agencies now have a clear obligation to disregard Northern Pass’s refusal to consider meaningful underground options and to conduct their own rigorous review of underground alternatives to Northern Pass.

Learn more about Northern Pass here or by signing up for CLF’s email newsletter, Northern Pass Wire. For the latest Northern Pass updates,  follow me on Twitter.

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