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My Turn: Technology exists to bury Northern Pass line

The Sunday Monitor’s Sept. 8 editorial, “Visual impact of towers still unclear,” displayed a refreshing bit of skepticism regarding the Northern Pass project and its public face. The Monitor rightly noted the failure of this project to level with the public. Obfuscation is a mild term for the way Northern Pass operates. Why are officials not more forthcoming on the details of their project? Because they don’t want the public or the press to know what they are really doing. This is, I believe, standard practice when siting unpopular facilities. There are public relations consultants who specialize in lulling the public into a false sense of the rightness of a bad project. The Monitor is right to advise readers in Concord to demand answers. In my experience over the past three years, they will not get them, but it is always worth a try and I applaud the paper for that.

One claim in the editorial left me breathless, however.

I was astonished to read that the Monitor has apparently not heard of modern underground long-line transmission technology. Since many of us have been writing about it for some time, including in the pages of this newspaper, this is very disappointing.

HVDC Light, manufactured by ABB, and HVDC Plus, manufactured by Siemens, are the trending technology for long-line transmission because they are reasonably priced, secure and invisible. This technology is marketed and installed by Hydro Quebec. Everyone in the energy industry is well aware of it. Failure to acknowledge this eminently viable method is simply unacceptable in a responsible publication like the Monitor.

A middle-schooler could Google HVDC light and come up with the facts. Such a search would reveal the MurrayLink, for example, a long-line underground transmission project in Australia that was installed by Hydro-Quebec TransEnergie and is presently in operation.

Closer to home, a Google search would reveal the Champlain Hudson Power Express project, which will use HVDC Light to move hydropower from Quebec beneath Lake Champlain, and then 133 miles underground to New York along roads and rail beds. The cost for the underground section of this line is priced at less than $6 million per mile. The cost for Northern Pass’s obsolete towers line is priced at less than $5 million per mile. Yes, HVDC Light underground is a bit more costly to install because the specialized cable costs more than old-fashioned cable. It is not nearly 4 to 14 times the cost. And there are important savings, such as storm damage repair which can run into the multi-millions. Champlain Hudson is developed by Blackstone Group. Do you really believe that this highly respected investment group would sign on for an exorbitantly priced method of moving power?

Interestingly, Champlain Hudson replaces New York Regional Interconnect, an overhead project through the Catskills, similar to Northern Pass, that was fought tooth and nail and ultimately withdrawn. Champlain Hudson experienced little opposition from the public. Why? It is invisible! Bingo. Renewable power on its way to New York.

Illustrating the trend away from overhead lines, yet another underground project, Tres Amigas, was announced recently in New Mexico. The developers mention the obvious benefits, including security and the fact that the public does not object to invisible underground lines. This project proposes a public-private partnership. Why wouldn’t this work in New Hampshire?

And then there is the fact that if the line is installed along state-owned roadways, New Hampshire can pick up significant revenue just as our neighbors in Maine are doing.

We all know why Northern Pass wants you to believe the high-cost scenario. This Connecticut-based conglomerate wants to “monetize” the easement that it controls and it is perfectly willing to trash a swath of New Hampshire to do that; if the truth about buried lines comes out, its argument collapses. Renewable power is a worthy goal. Trashing New Hampshire unnecessarily for private gain most assuredly is not.

I am surprised that the Monitor takes as a given claims that underground lines are impossible when the known facts are so clearly contrary. How far can the emperor walk down the street before you notice that he is wearing no clothes?

Does the Monitor really want to be remembered as the paper that pushed this obsolete overhead line when a perfectly viable, invisible alternative was present? Is that the legacy the paper has in mind for our kids? I think they deserve better.

(Nancy Martland is coordinator of the Sugar Hill Tower Opponents.)

Legacy Comments5

I don't know Nancy Martland but the veracity of her letter has been confirmed by the headline front page article in today's [ 9/15] Union Leader - Sunday News. The article is very comprehensive and details some of the reasons why no. pass is trying to avoid the underground option - concluding that no. pass is an attempt to sustain the failing psnh of CT by monetizing their existing right of way and monopolizing the transmission fees. That's the real reason they claim underground transmission isn't feasible - while fighting hard to make sure no real study or comparison is done or required. It's clear they intend to try to exploit NH with their proposal to fill their own pockets at our expense.

I see another front page article on the Sewalls Falls Bridge. A small and relatively inconsequential, lightly travelled bridge from northeast Concord to the rural East Concord, Loudon area similar to the Canterbury bridge that was closed years ago when it deteriorated. It seems like the major beneficiary to a new bridge will be the only one on the other side who wants to run large trucks across the bridge - the Monitor. With the Merrimack River on one side and a rail bed and I-93 on the other, the Monitor has boxed themselves in their new location. Does this have anything to do with why the Monitor is so averse to an underground power transmission corridor beside rail beds and the interstate or is that just coincidence? Is what's good for the Monitor good for the people - but what's good for the people not good for the Monitor?

There could be a big difference between laying cable along a lake bottom versus excavating roadways, earth, and maybe blasting through ledge to bury an electric line. Blanket statements about it being only a bit more costly are not necessarily the truth either. It seems to me that both sides of this issue are generally over simplifying the factoids in their respective arguments. In my opinion those who fight against this project are usually just as guilty with the misinformation campaign as the profiteers who promote it. I agree that the lines should be buried. In fact, I think this nation should make it an infastructure goal to bury most or all of our overhead wires in the next 50 or 100 years. Telephone poles and cables are just plain ugly in all landscapes, not just the scenic roads of northern NH. They are going to become increasingly hazardous as our need for more energy increases along with our population.

The actual cost of buried lines v. overhead lines is not the most salient issue the author makes. Of course, there will be variables. But it is simply not the case that buried lines are 4x to 14x more expensive, and the Concord Monitor should not be repeating that misstatement. One of author's major point is that, when forced to it, other utility developers have found a way to bury the line and to make enough profit at the same time. Why can't Northern Pass? Champlain-Hudson only came along after an earlier transmission proposal, New York Regional Interconnect, which is much like Northern Pass, met stiff opposition. Like NP, NYRI wanted to cross an iconic area, the Catskills, comparable to the White Mountain National Forest. Like NP, NYRI proposed running overhead lines down a major tourist route, the Hudson River Valley (comparable to the I-93 gateway corridor). Like NP, NYRI was willing to sacrifice rural upstate New York (comparable to the North Country). New York said NO. NYRI died, and the phoenix that arose from its ashes is Champain Hudson, which has moved along relatively quickly because the developers are smart and do, in fact, take stakeholder concerns into consideration. (Yes, CH goes under water, Lake Champlain, but a significant portion of it in the Hudson Valley goes underground.) The author's major point is that NH should insist upon the latest technology, which is cheaper than Northern Pass admits - and that opinion makers like the Monitor should be well informed about it. If the Monitor wants to be helpful, they will write an OpEd encouraging NH residents to request the DOE to study the costs of a buried line as an alternative route. The scoping hearings will be held Sept. 23-26 in four locations (Concord, Plymouth, Whitefield, Colebrook).

Blanket statements about oversimplification not withstanding, the line referred to is not just laid on a lake bottom, it is actually buried underground underneath the lakebed which doesn't strike me as being a lot cheaper or easier than burying beside the interstate where most of the blasting has already been done. The bottom line is that underground transmission is practical, feasible, economically viable, safer, less vulnerable, and not just more socially acceptable but actually being done in projects right here in New England. It is a common misconception to equate "telephone poles and cables" with transmission lines. Telephone poles, usually wooden, average about 34 feet tall above ground and carry relatively small amounts of power along with cable and telephone wires. The line no. pass is trying to run on huge, ugly metal towers up to 150 feet tall would carry as much power as the Seabrook nuke at full output - 1200 Million watts - and likely require those red flashing lights like radio towers have to try and keep planes and helicopters from crashing into them. That amount of power is orders of magnitude more dangerous than anything on a telephone pole. The opposition has no motive to promote misinformation as the truth is evidence enough - no. pass is the one with $$ Billions $$ of reasons to stretch the truth. No one is paying me to point out their half truths and deceptions.

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