My Turn: Our electric transmission network is an antique
Concerns about climate issues have resulted in a serious effort to change the way we generate electric power, here in New Hampshire and across the United States. Advances in energy generation using solar, wind, biomass and hydro technologies have created opportunities for consumers and energy suppliers to use cleaner, renewable energy sources to power our homes, offices and industries. Generation is only half of the story, however.
No matter how the power is generated, it must be moved to the consumer. How should it be moved? Given the growing renewable energy sector, the existing transmission network is inadequate. Its capacity is insufficient, its technology is antique and it is constructed of aging materials. Any new generating plant or power source, whether biomass, wind, solar or hydro, must connect to the power grid with a new transmission line. The potential for an ever-growing network of overhead transmission lines looms over New Hampshire as we look ahead to a renewable energy future.
Moving renewable power with antique transmission technology is kind of like hitching a team of horses to your shiny new Prius or Volt.
Much has been made of the Northern Pass transmission project, its plan to string more than 1,500 antique-style transmission towers through New Hampshire, and the objections to its degradation of the landscape. Northern Pass illustrates the transmission issues raised by new energy sources, but it is just a taste of what is to come. Other power generators, from north of our border, from here in New Hampshire or from neighboring states, will soon seek ways to move their product to market, either through New Hampshire or within it. Northern Pass is just the tip of the iceberg.
Traditionally, high voltage electricity has been transmitted using tall metal lattice towers. This design was invented in the mid-20th century and until recently was the only practical way to move high-voltage power over long distances.
While it has performed well in the absence of an alternative, tower technology comes with certain drawbacks. Overhead lines are vulnerable to wind, snow, ice and fire. We regularly see service interrupted by storms – underground lines would be unaffected. Just last month, forest fires in northern Quebec nearly shut down the New England grid. Overhead lines are also vulnerable to those who would seek to disrupt the flow of electricity for political or other purposes. Securely buried lines are far less available to those who would attack them. Overhead lines degrade the landscape. Underground lines are invisible.
Overhead transmission was acceptable when it was the only means available. Today we have an alternative: HVDC Light, a modern cable technology that can be placed underground with reasonable effort and cost. This newer technology renders antique overhead transmission lines obsolete and unnecessary. While there may be a somewhat higher initial cost, there are important savings as well – expensive storm damage repairs, for one.
HVDC Light is used around the globe. Close to home, the highly regarded Blackstone Group is developing an underwater/underground line from Quebec through Vermont to New York using HVDC Light. Right next door, Maine has created an underground utility corridor along state-owned roads and rail beds, for which it will collect substantial leasing fees. Northeast Energy Link, a private, for-profit venture, plans to use the Maine corridor to move power south underground from northern Maine.
New Hampshire has a similar network of state-owned roads and rail beds – why not use it to move more than cars and trucks? Why not use the rights-of-way to move power as well? Why not bring revenue to the state from this taxpayer asset?
New Hampshire stands at a crossroads. We can determine our own fate, or we can leave it to others, who may not share our goals and priorities, to determine it for us. We can leave our children a legacy of clear blue skies or a maze of overhead wires. We can accept antique transmission methods that will forest our state in metal, or we can insist on newer technologies. We can believe claims that underground lines are impractical or too costly, or we can look at what is going on around us in Maine, Vermont and New York and ask, “Why not in New Hampshire?”
The time is now for New Hampshire to require our energy transmission system to be just as green as our energy generating system. The time is now for the Legislature, the governor, conservation groups, private citizens and the energy industry to come together and embrace the change that modern technology offers.
The House Science, Technology and Energy Committee is studying several bills that would move New Hampshire forward toward a future of green energy transmission. These bills merit serious consideration. If we have the will to work together, we really can move the power without the towers.
Our kids deserve a New Hampshire left in the best condition possible. We’re working hard to implement green energy sources, but if we allow the energy industry to continue building antique towers, our kids will see not the future, but the past. Why leave the job half done? Let’s start building a secure, green transmission system for them now.
(Nancy Martland is coordinator of the Sugar Hill Tower Opponents.)