Environmental study sees little problem with cable under Lake Champlain

TDI map-2The U.S. Department of Energy released a draft environmental impact study on a development firm’s proposal to run a 154-mile high-voltage transmission cable beneath Lake Champlain.

Federal officials recommend allowing the $1.2 billion project proposed by TDI New England, which builds direct-current power transmission systems, to go forward because it would help meet regional energy needs. Officials also concluded that the environmental impacts of a high-voltage cable’s construction, operation and maintenance would be minimal, in the draft study.

The transmission line would pass under nearly 100 miles of Lake Champlain to a proposed converter station in Ludlow, crossing wetlands and streams along the way. It would carry electricity from Canada to markets in southern New England. It’s the first project of this size to be reviewed for environmental impact on the lake, according to state officials.

The underwater portions of the transmission cable would be buried in Lake Champlain, with the exception of depths greater than 150 feet, in which case the cables would be placed on the lakebed. Construction would rely on horizontal drilling.

The federal report is part of the company’s presidential permit review process, which is required for international energy projects. Public hearings on the findings will be held July 15 in Burlington and July 16 in Rutland. The public can also submit written comment on the project website. The comment period will last until mid-August.

A final version of the study will be released after the public comment period closes, and a final decision on the permit can be issued no sooner than 30 days after. In addition to the environmental impact study (or EIS), federal regulators must determine that the project is in the public interest and ISO New England, the independent grid operator, must complete a reliability study.

TDI anticipates permitting will take until mid-2016, with major construction beginning in 2018. If the New England Clean Energy Link, as the project is known, moves forward, then the 1,000-megawatt transmission line is anticipated to be carrying power by 2019.

TDI New England, a subsidiary of financial firm Blackstone Group, which manages more than $200 billion in assets, is offering the state a benefits package of $298 million over the project’s 40-year lifespan. Roughly half that money would go to Lake Champlain phosphorus cleanup, habitat restoration and recreational improvements. Some money would also go to the state’s Clean Energy Fund.

The rest would go to Vermont Electric Power Co., or VELCO, the state’s transmission utility. The state’s electric utilities, which own VELCO, are expected to use that money to reduce electric rates, according to state officials.

An initial round of public comment last year raised concerns that trenching techniques and burying the transmission lines could stir up sediment in the lake, specifically mercury and phosphorus, which could impact water quality.

The draft EIS states construction would stir up lakebed sediment, but the impact would be a “temporary, minor” increase in the amount of solids suspended in the water, as well as temporary increases in “phosphorus concentration levels” at cable installation points. Releases of hydrocarbons may have “minor effects” on fish, especially in shallow areas, the EIS says.

Those increases would be “within limits of Vermont standards,” according to the U.S. energy department.

Overland construction is likely to cause “minor, temporary” increases in erosion and runoff into surface waters and groundwater turbidity “due to blasting,” which could also increase bedrock fracturing.

Noise from construction could have “temporary adverse” effects on bald eagles and protected bat populations, but those, too, are anticipated to be minor, the reports says.

The need for the project’s electricity is real and immediate, according to the energy department.

New England is an “energy-constrained system” due in part to its dependence on natural gas and the planned retirement of more than 4,000 megawatts of energy resources by 2017.

Vermont has yet to determine the source for nearly 32 percent of its electricity in 2016, according to the study. That’s largely a result of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant’s decommissioning, the report says. Without the New England Clean Energy Power Link, Vermont must to continue to buy power from other sources. Conservation and demand reductions alone are “not a reasonable alternative” for the state to meet its energy needs.

“The proposed NECPL Project would address the needs and future goals identified in the Regional System Plan,” according to the study.

TDI New England won’t own the power running through the lines. Power suppliers in Quebec could contract with Vermont utilities to sell and deliver the power, according to VELCO. No long-term power purchase agreements have been made.

The company applied for a state permit for its project in December. Department of Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia could not be reached before deadline Wednesday for comment on where that process stands.

At the time, Recchia said the state had just begun reviewing the project, but he did not appear to agree with the U.S. Department of Energy assessment of Vermont’s need for electricity from the project.

“We won’t be getting any power from this project. Our utilities don’t really need it,” Recchia said in December. “So it’s really important that if Vermont does host a project like this, that we have a significant benefit.”

TDI New England CEO Donald Jessome said in a statement Wednesday that, “We are extremely pleased that the Department of Energy has issued this draft EIS, inviting Vermonters and other stakeholders to review the document’s detailed analysis of how the project interacts with the environment. We look forward to working with the public, as well as federal and state regulators, to review these findings and finalize a project that will deliver clean, renewable power to New England in a minimally impactful way.”

In the past Jessome has highlighted the project’s potential benefits to Vermont, including millions of dollars in property and sales tax revenue, as well as hundreds of construction jobs, reduced greenhouse gas emission and lower electricity prices.

Morgan True

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