Power to the people!

For more than 40 years New York State has been struggling to figure out how to transmit upstate and Canadian power down through the Hudson Valley to New York City. A lot has changed in that long period of time. State energy strategists see the alternatives differently than they used to. But the question of expanding the southward network of transmission lines has not gone away. 

What the Public Service Commission (PSC) calls “selected projects” to increase transmission capacity within existing rights-of-way have been part of the Empire State’s energy strategy since 2015. Last October the state announced a $124-million first contract for enlarging hydro power transmission southward in the Adirondacks 86 miles or so.

Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his Energy Highway plan in the 2012 state-of-the-state address. The purpose of this electronic roadway, he said, was to transmit electricity from upstate to downstate. Seven years later, very little has happened. “There are signs of some pieces inching forward,” reported a Politico article in January of last year, “but the slow pace of progress on new large-scale transmission projects has frustrated energy stakeholders.”

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Is that because of bureaucratic inertia? Or because the highway is not needed?

“Of course we are going to need more transmission,” said state ‘energy czar’ Richard Kauffman in early 2018 (his job description has since been changed.) “The question is how much more transmission are we going to need.” Kauffman thinks that for now there’s time to defer some investment decisions.

Most renewable generation, said supporters of additional transmission, requires movement of excess power to high-demand areas. Existing downstate power plants (including Indian Point) are scheduled to be retired. It seemed logical to think the additional power would need to be transmitted southward through the Hudson Valley to New York City. It was difficult to imagine realization of the governor’s objective of producing half the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030 without enhanced transmission capabilities.

The state government has marked time through two organizational innovations. It has encouraged innovation by supporting a variety of smart-grid demonstration projects. And it has developed a statewide energy management mechanism that was empowered to make decisions.

What should those decisions be?

 

One position, advocated strenuously by Scenic Hudson and the Hudson Valley Smart Energy Coalition, is that the transmission of additional energy through this region isn’t needed. The problem in New York City, they say, is not too little energy supply but periods when peak loads exceed capacity. Scenic Hudson often cites Bard College research physics professor Gidon Eshel as its expert in questioning state projections that he says systematically overstate future downstate peak loads.    

A second position is that sufficient extra energy can be channeled through expanded transmission involving taller and stronger towers within existing overhead transmission corridors. The plentiful supply of natural gas can easily bridge the time period between now and when improved transmission makes an expanded energy supply more available, its supporters contend. According to the local Lohud (USA Today) website, natural gas filled the gap when Indian Point shut down for nearly two weeks in late March. 

“Those who monitor the state’s fuel mix say Indian Point’s shutdown provided a rare opportunity for a glimpse at what lies ahead unless renewable sources of power gain a larger percentage of the state’s energy mix,” wrote reporter Thomas Zambino of the Rockland-Westchester Journal News.   

A third position proposes sending huge amounts of alternating-current hydropower generated at Canadian dams through underground and underwater cables to New York City. Owned by The Blackstone Group, the huge private equity asset management firm, the Champlain-Hudson Power Express has been around for more than a decade. It and other proposals like it provide power through alternative transmission technologies.

 

Some stakeholders are restless about the continued deferral of investment decisions on power transmission. Statewide environmental groups worry that stalling on increasing transmission capabilities might impair the growth of renewable energy, imperiling the goal of providing half the state’s needs through renewable by 2030. Normally on his side in opposing the use of fossil fuels, these environmentalists don’t seem entirely persuaded by Kauffman’s views on transmission. “The rapid construction of new high-voltage transmission infrastructure should be an important component of the state’s strategy,” said a 2016 letter signed by leaders of the Sierra Club, Environmental Advocates, Natural Resources Defense Council, Alliance for Clean Energy, and Pace Energy and Climate Center.

Scenic Hudson has marched to a different drummer on this issue. It and other member organizations of the Hudson Valley Smart Energy Coalition complain that the PSC had solicited proposals from power-line developers “despite evidence that the $1.2-billion, rate-payer-financed initiative is unnecessary, unfair to ratepayers and predicted to increase pollution.” Scenic Hudson’s focus is on issues other than the proposed power-line projects being necessary in terms of supply. Rather, “[they] could imperil the valley’s scenic beauty, productive farmland, important cultural and historic assets, and critical wildlife habitats,” the Poughkeepsie-based regional environmental group has argued. “As a result, they pose very real threats to growing tourism and agricultural economies essential for sustaining the region’s prosperity and attracting new businesses.”

The $124-million contract enlarging hydropower transmission southward 86 miles through two Adirondacks counties, St, Lawrence (population 111,844) and Lewis (27,087) is the first leg of the state’s power-line investment. The reaction at the local hearings there was favorable. The state government said the project would create approximately 2000 fulltime jobs during development and construction. Larger steel monopoles will replace smaller wooden poles. Most people wanted the jobs.

The Hudson Valley Smart Energy Coalition has said that a full assessment of more sustainable options that won’t damage the environment was needed prior to the issuance of the necessary permits in the Hudson Valley. These, it said, included utilizing current transmission infrastructure, burying the lines underground, or relying on local clean power sources.

Though it is probably not imminent, the time will come for a decision on the method of southward transmission of energy through the Hudson Valley.

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