High-voltage transmission cables to be buried in Lake Champlain

Sailboats on Lake Champlain in the summertime. By Cameron Kovach
Sailboats on Lake Champlain in the summertime. By Cameron Kovach

By Cameron Kovach, Vermont correspondent

Last month, Vermont regulators approved a major power transmission project that could save Vermont electric ratepayers more than $245 million by 2029. The project, known as the New England Clean Power Link, will transmit hydroelectric power sourced in Canada to a converter station in Ludlow, where it will then be distributed as a renewable source of electricity throughout the state and beyond.

While most large-scale development projects in the state historically face intense scrutiny from Vermonters, the New England Clean Power Link (NECPL) has moved forward with virtually no resistance from the general public or environmental groups, a scenario most likely resulting from the project’s plan to bury nearly all of the proposed 154-miles of new high-voltage transmission cables at the bottom of Lake Champlain.

Support for the project extends beyond aesthetics, however. With the permanent shuttering of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in 2014, Vermont lost more than 55 percent of its already limited electricity generating capacity. Now, the state’s electric utilities must increasingly rely on power coming from an aging, unreliable and fossil fuel-driven New England power grid.

On the other hand, Canada currently has a vast surplus of reliable electricity, but lacks the regional transmission lines necessary to carry that power into the U.S. market. In fact, Quebec produces so much hydroelectric power that it already has the capacity to export up to 30 terawatt hours of electricity per year to the US, if infrastructure could support it. That’s roughly 25 percent of New England’s total electricity usage per year.

As a result, NECPL will diversify an aging New England power grid with a new source of renewable energy, strengthen the reliability of Vermont’s electric grid and allow New England the flexibility to reduce its reliance on fossil fuel based electricity generation. Furthermore, TDI New England, the project’s developer, will also contribute $263 million to Lake Champlain clean-up projects, $109 million for in-state renewable energy development, and an additional $136 million in transmission cost reductions for Vermont electric ratepayers over the project’s expected 40-year lifespan.

Even though NECPL has received widespread support in the state, the project will not be without impact. The converter station in Ludlow will be large and above ground, and the transmission wires leading from Lake Champlain to Ludlow will be buried in existing rights of way, which may cause a brief inconvenience during installation for travelers on several Vermont highways, including Route 7.

Additionally, some have questioned the environmental benefits of relying on large-scale hydroelectric facilities as the source of “clean” power transmitted over the line. Large hydroelectric dams often destroy or significantly disrupt wildlife habitat, while also still contributing carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere through the decomposition of flooded vegetation and soil. Others have also expressed concern over the potential effects of a high-voltage, though heavily insulated, transmission cable on Lake Champlain’s aquatic life, both during and after the 40-year lifespan of the project.

The Vermont Public Service Board, however, has found that NECPL will provide significant economic, environmental, and electric system benefits, and that NECPL’s benefits are significant enough to outweigh any potential negative effects, thus promoting the general good of the state.

Use of submarine power cables has soared in recent years because of strong public opposition towards the unsightly appearance of traditional high-voltage transmission towers and the growth of offshore wind energy; NECPL is just one of several high-voltage power transmission projects currently proposed for Lake Champlain. The privately funded NECPL, though still pending inevitable federal approval, is expected to start construction this year and reach completion by 2019.

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