Visual impact of towers here still unclear
Concord-area residents should keep an open mind about the controversial Northern Pass power line that Hydro Quebec and Northeast Utilities want to string from the state’s northern border to Deerfield. Despite scores of public meetings and information sessions like the one Northern Pass employees held in Concord on Wednesday, many questions remain unanswered.
Chief among them, for many, is what the visual impact of the new line and taller towers will be. Will neighbors be able to see it from their deck or picture window? What will the effect be? Though the route of the line and the height of each tower can be found on the company’s website, northernpass.us, that question can’t be answered. Absent such information, speculation about the impact of the line on property values or tourism remains just that, speculation.
The new line would be strung on the existing right-of-way that stretches from Hoit Road in the north to near the Shaw’s supermarket on D’Amante Drive. Will its impact on property values offset the estimated $629,000 the company says it will pay in Concord property taxes? Again, there’s no way to say. Much depends on a given property’s distance from a tower and the height of trees and other vegetation between viewer and tower. Viewshed impact assessments done by a contractor for Northern Pass and the Appalachian Mountain Club, an opponent of the project, differ dramatically. A presumably impartial assessment will be done by the federal Department of Energy, but it could arrive after most of the public has made up its mind.
Last spring, the city conservation commission unanimously voted to oppose the project, calling it of “questionable value.” The planning board called for burying the line as it passes through Concord. Those actions, we believe, were premature. The impending closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, proposals by natural gas producers to liquify and ship gas overseas, where it commands higher prices, and other factors are changing the regional energy picture. The Northern Pass proposal should be considered in that light.
Burying the power line is, as the company claims, economically impossible given current technology. A 2011 study by the Wisconsin Public Utilities Commission, which concerned the construction of a 345-kilovolt line akin to the one Northern Pass wants to install, estimated the cost of burying power lines to be 4 to 14 times the cost of overhead lines.
Burying low-voltage power lines, as is done in residential areas, is far less costly than burying high-voltage cables, which must be cooled, buried 6 to 8 feet below the surface and served by large underground vaults where splices occur. Burying 6 miles of line, as Northern Pass plans to do in northern New Hampshire, will cost $100 million. The cost would be higher per mile in more developed areas like Concord.
Much of the skepticism and opposition Northern Pass has encountered it brought on itself. It may indeed be customary, when new power lines are proposed, to wait until the process is well under way to provide sound visual impact information to the public. But that delay comes with a price. Last week, when Northern Pass representatives came to Concord, they should have been armed, at a minimum, with accurate visual impact information, mock views if you will, from sample sites along the lines route. Software already in use makes it possible to provide schematics, once fieldwork has been done, that depict what is visible from where. Absent that, Northern Pass could have fallen back on old technology and used helium balloons or flags on poles to portray the height of several proposed towers.
The existing line is sited so that its visual impact, for most Concord residents, is minimal. The visual impact of taller towers may be considerable, or negligible. In the absence of information from Northern Pass, it is not unreasonable for residents to fill in the worst blank on the page. The sooner that information can be provided, the better.