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Primary Source: Vt. Power Project Wins Key Backing of Environmental Group

Thursday, June 25, 2015
Things seem to be developing well for TDI-New England, the company proposing to build a $1.2 billion transmission line that would carry 1,000 megawatts of Canadian hydropower underneath Lake Champlain to a new converter station in Windsor County.

Last month, a draft environmental impact statement from the U.S. Department of Energy said the process of burying lines 3 to 4 feet under the lake bed, and simply laying them in at the deepest points, could stir up some sediment but would have little overall impact on the environment.

Then, last week, a key New England environmental group essentially endorsed the project’s application for a certificate of public good, noting that TDI-New England has agreed to pay more than $283 million over 40 years into three funds, two intended to enhance and clean up the lake and one that boosts renewable energy in Vermont.

The group, the Conservation Law Foundation, also happens to be a major opponent of another high-profile bid to carry power from Hydro Quebec, the proposed Northern Pass line through New Hampshire.

“The conversation we had with TDI is looking at the overall public good, recognizing that there will be some short-term impacts in putting the line in the ground and under the lake,” CLF Vice President Chris Kilian, the director of the group’s Vermont office, said last week.

By contrast, CLF “has been adamantly opposed to Northern Pass, and we’ve been at the core of the advocacy effort to stop it,” Kilian said.

The major objection is that Northern Pass is almost entirely overland “and involves a very complex route through some very important conserved land and the (White Mountain) National Forest,” Kilian said.

In terms of coming up with the dough — TDI initially proposed $162 million in enhancements — it doesn’t hurt, of course, that TDI is owned by Blackstone, the all-powerful New York global investment firm that has $284 billion worth of assets under management.

One question that remains is whether the $283 million from TDI will be paid out in $7 million annual increments or in some other timeframe.

“That is a topic for discussion,” Kilian said. “Our view is it should be front-loaded.”

After traveling some 98 miles under the lake, TDI’s line would then be built under rights-of-way running 56 miles east to Ludlow, Vt., where a converter station would change the direct current to alternating current. From there, it’s less than a half mile to the existing Vermont Electric Power Company’s Coolidge substation in Cavendish, Vt., which then springs the electricity onto the New England power grid.

Here’s where there is an Upper Valley wrinkle. To spread on the grid, one of the main routes from Cavendish is a VELCO transmission line that runs through Weathersfield to a substation off Route 5 in Ascutney. From there, the transmission line runs over the Connecticut River into Claremont and other parts of New Hampshire.

Will the boost in power from TDI require bigger transmission lines in the Valley, a main concern elsewhere with the Northern Pass project? It’s not entirely clear, but the impact may not be too big.

VELCO is already planning to upgrade its Upper Valley infrastructure, but spokeswoman Shana Louiselle said it is part of a “reliability project” to address deficiencies identified as far back as 2009. The work includes rebuilding the line from the Coolidge to Ascutney substations and replacing 160 “structures,” aka transmission towers. The existing structures are generally about 48 feet in height, and their replacements will typically be about 57 feet in height, a 19 percent increase.

“The increase in structure height will provide improved operational safeguards and clearances,” Louiselle said via email.

“We’re not going to be building a new line,” she said. “There won’t be an expansion to the corridor.”

She also said that the VELCO upgrades are “a proposed reliability project” to address the fact that the existing line “was exposed to overloads under several system conditions and the line exceeds its current carrying capacity.” She also said the VELCO project “is not connected to TDI’s New England Clean Power Link,” the somewhat sappy name for the Blackstone project.

Local officials in Vermont have been briefed on the VELCO plan, and reaction so far has been favorable.

Weathersfield Zoning Administrator Charles Wise said VELCO will run a somewhat thicker cable along the transmission line, which also crosses Interstate 91 near the Ascutney exit, but that the changes don’t seem as if they will make much difference visually from the ground.

“It’s almost undetectable from the public’s perspective,” Wise said.

What happens in New Hampshire is a little less clear. Martin Murray, the spokesman for Eversource, the new name for Public Service of New Hampshire, said Wednesday he was not immediately aware of any planned upgrades to the transmission line once it reaches the Granite State from Ascutney.



John P. Gregg can be reached at jgregg@vnews.com.

Correction

Chris Kilian is vice president and Vermont director for the Conservation Law Foundation. About 8 miles of the 186-mile Northern Pass electric transmission route in New Hampshire would be underground. An earlier version of this column misspelled Kilian’s last name and misstated how much of the route, as currently proposed, would be underground.




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