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My Turn: Burying electric lines makes good sense

A few months ago, the Northern Pass transmission project reported to the investment community that a new route would be revealed this fall.

This came after almost two years of controversy and citizen protests that grew up around the Northern Pass’s original plan to run electric transmission lines for 180 miles from Canada to Deerfield, first announced in October 2010. This route includes 10 miles in the national forest, for which a complex special-use permit is required.

Instead of an alternative route, however, Northern Pass announced a new design for the height of the towers: The ones to be built on forest land along existing power lines will now be 85 feet high instead of 100-135 feet.

This announcement said two things to me:

First, Northern Pass blinked.

Second, Northern Pass and its partners still aren’t listening to the people and the communities most impacted by the proposed 140-mile line.

If just the towers sited in the middle of the woods will be shortened to be less intrusive, what about the towers that people live next to and will see every day?

Meanwhile, the legislative commission studying energy corridors within transportation rights of way has diligently looked at the impact of transmission lines above and below ground.

The members heard that the technology for burying transmission lines has been developing for more than 30 years. It is a practice that Maine, other U.S. states and countries from Australia to Europe have explored and accepted. It is a proven method used in national parks and other areas with sensitive aesthetics. The state Department of Transportation told the commission that there are four potential highway corridors for burying lines in our state: Interstates 93, 95, 89 and Route 101.

But the commission’s first draft report, which promoted undergrounding, has met heavy resistance from Northern Pass and its paid lobbyists, who argue that the recommendation to bury transmission lines is “designed to attack” the project and its “economic foundation.” Spokesmen for Northern Pass say it would be just too expensive to bury the lines.

Did anyone really think they would say anything different?

Burying transmission lines is not as burdensome as Northern Pass and its partners portray it. Hydro Quebec’s own literature cites benefits of burying lines. The Hydro Quebec website’s “Better Living” page says, “Imagine your backyard, your street, your entire neighborhood without utility poles or overhead lines.”

It’s hard to believe that Hydro Quebec would promote burying lines in Canada but not across the border in New Hampshire.

Underground lines are less affected by weather – another reason this is important for states like Maine and New Hampshire to consider. The power outages caused by Sandy, Hurricane Irene and the “Snowtober” event of 2011 were massive, knocking out power for millions of customers. The Edison Electric Institute found that customers served through overhead lines see 14 times more outages than customers with underground lines.

Burying lines will be more expensive than overhead lines, but it can also be an income source for the state. In 2010, Maine established a process for creating energy corridors and has now designated the I-95 median for an underground corridor to deliver power to the New England grid. There are no hard numbers, but some estimates are that these leased rights of way could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars for the state.

Northeast Utilities, a primary partner in the Northern Pass, has also buried lines, including 24 miles of a densely populated area between Middletown and Norwalk, Conn., a fact that was reported to the energy corridors study commission.

But NU has not seriously looked at studying this in New Hampshire.

I’m glad the energy corridors study commission has taken this issue seriously and hope that the pushback from Northern Pass doesn’t dilute its final report and recommendations.

What’s good enough for Hydro Quebec customers in Canada and NU customers in Connecticut should be good enough for New Hampshire.

(Joe Drinon lives in Bow.)

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