Eversouce Says Total Burial of Northern Pass Too Expensive; Feds Say It's Feasible

Aug 6, 2015

While Northern Pass would like to put towers along its right-of-way through the White Mountain National Forest the DOE suggests burying them alongside existing roads.
Credit Department of Energy

Last week Eversource official Lee Olivier told analysts that the company still thinks completely burying the Northern Pass line is “unnecessary” and “prohibitively expensive.”

But, he said, some additional burial might be possible.

That comes in response to the release of a new report from the Department of Energy that includes a look at the issue.

For years opponents of the controversial Northern Pass project have contended the overhead transmission lines could be buried.

And Northern Pass officials have insisted burial is too expensive.

Now a new report from the Department of Energy includes a look at the issue..

NHPR's Chris Jensen joins us to talk about what the report says with regard to burying transmission lines. 

RICK: Hi, Chris.

CHRIS: Good morning.

RICK: We’re looking at the federal Department of Energy’s draft Environmental Impact Statement that came out last week for public comment. It’s about 7800 pages in total.  Of course the most controversial issue around the project has been the push to bury the lines.  What does the report actually say?

CHRIS: It says extended burial is both, quote, “practical and technically feasible,” but in order to do that, developers would have to shrink the capacity of the project by more than 15 percent.  What that means is using 1000 megawatt lines instead of 1200 megawatt lines.

The 1,000 megawatt line is designed to be buried so it is cheaper.

But it is not yet clear if Eversource, Northern Pass’ parent, is ready to accept that change.

We did get one clue Eversource might be headed in that direction, though. Earlier this year it filed an interconnection request for a smaller power line.  That could be a sign that when Eversource presents an updated application with the state, that there will be substantially more burial.

RICK:  The report examines the project with overhead lines which is what Eversource first proposed - and then it lays out nine alternatives with varying amounts of burial.  How much do they differ?

Six of them call for what DOE calls full or extensive burial.

For example, one is to bury that smaller 1,000 megawatt line along the route Northern Pass planned to use for overhead lines. That would cost about twice as much as Northern Pass’ current overhead proposal which includes only eight miles of buried lines.

Generally the other alternatives would follow Route 3 south from the Canadian border to Interstate 93.

Then, the line would either go through the Franconia Notch on I-93 or follow smaller roads such as Route 112 and 116 in Easton, Franconia and Sugar Hill that already go through the White Mountain National Forest. Then, it would follow I-93 south.

Lastly there are three alternatives that would mostly use overhead and only bury the lines through the White Mountain National Forest, which many see as one of the big road-blocks for the project.

RICK: I imagine there’s quite a difference in cost among the proposals?

CHRIS: The DOE says putting the larger 1200 megawatt lines overhead, which is what Northern Pass wants, would cost a little more than $1 billion.

That is the cheapest project in the report.

One alternative DOE has proposed would bury all of the lines along 175 miles of roads. That would cost about $1.8 billion.

But that’s much cheaper than the burial figures Northern Pass officials have cited.

Last year Northern Pass said burying a 1,200 megawatt line along eight miles of roads in the far North Country would cost between $15 million and $20 million for each mile. At the high end that would be almost double the DOE’s estimate.

But a factor in the difference could be the difference in the capacity of the lines.

The DOE’s cost estimates only come to pass if Northern Pass downsizes the project to those 1,000 megawatt lines.

RICK: In addition to the cost differences, the report details the pros and cons for each of the alternatives and different amounts of burying the lines.  What does it say?

CHRIS: Well, one upside that some opponents have already seized upon is that burying more of the line means more jobs.

Northern Pass' preference is for overhead towers with only eight miles in the far North Country buried.

According to DOE Northern Pass’ overhead lines would create a total of 5,400 full-time construction jobs over three years.

If everything was buried DOE claims it would create a little more than 10,000 jobs spread over the three years.

And the economic impact for the region would almost double to about $1 billion.

That raises the possibility of an interesting alliance in favor of burial.

Opponents of Northern Pass who wanted it buried could find themselves suddenly allied with unions that have championed the project because of the jobs.

Other big advantages would be the least impact on the environment, tourism and property values.

Downsides to burial listed include some substantial, short-term traffic problems and an increased chance of erosion compared to the overhead lines.

RICK: And someone has to pay for burial.

CHRIS: Yes and so the real question is whether Northern Pass wants to do the project with the added cost.

RICK: How would burying the line along roads affect what Northern Pass would charge Hydro-Quebec for using it to send their electricity south?

CHRIS: Northern Pass spokeswoman Lauren Collins says the basic method would not change. She said Northern Pass “will charge Hydro-Quebec an annual fee based on the total capital costs of building and operating the line, not based on where the line runs.” 

One possibility is that the state could make a little money out of this if it could charge Northern Pass a fee for running along the roads.

But a Department of Transportation spokesman said anything more than a minimal fee would apparently require legislation.

RICK: So, what’s the latest on what Northern Pass is saying about burial?

CHRIS: Well, the project’s spokesperson Collins, says burying that smaller 1,000 megawatt line is quote, “one of the things we are looking at as we determine the best balance for the project going forward.”

And in that conference call with analysts Lee Olivier, the Eversource official, said the DOE report doesn’t poise “any unanticipated challenges.”

RICK:  And this report by no means has the final say on this issue…

CHRIS: No, not by a long shot.  The public now gets 90 days to comment on it and in October there will be public hearings in Plymouth, Whitefield and Concord. Then the DOE will produce the final version. And next we expect Eversource to file its project with the state’s Site Evaluation Committee. Even if the feds approve the project the Site Evaluation Committee also has to approve.

RICK: Thanks very much.

CHRIS: You are welcome.

To see all the DOE documents including maps go here.