Group plans utility cable under Lake Champlain

ADDISON — With Vermont Gas having pulled the plug on its Phase II natural gas pipeline plan, attention is now shifting to another project designed to funnel energy through Lake Champlain — although the proposal in question has not drawn the same controversy that the Vermont Gas application generated.
At issue is the New England Clean Power Link, a proposal by TDI New England for a 1,000-megawatt, high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission line that would stretch south from the Canadian border at Alburgh to Ludlow.
Of particular interest to Addison County: Approximately 98 miles of the 150-mile line would be buried under Lake Champlain, with a stretch of the line running near Ferrisburgh and Panton before hugging the shorelines of Addison, Bridport, Shoreham and Orwell and then veering onto land in Benson.
There, the line would be undergrounded through portions of Fair Haven, Castleton, West Rutland, Rutland, Clarendon, Shrewsbury, Wallingford and Mount Holly, culminating at a proposed converter station in Ludlow. The converter station would change the electrical power from direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC). An underground AC transmission line would then run approximately 0.3 miles along town roads to the existing VELCO 345 kV Coolidge Substation in Cavendish, where the electricity would be carried on the New England electric grid.
The privately funded, $1.2 billion project is intended to deliver low-cost, renewable power from Canada to Vermont and the broader New England market, according to Project Manager Josh Bagnato, who is based in Charlotte. The project is being financed by Blackstone, a private equity fund.
“This will be a private transmission line … and development for this is being borne entirely at risk by the private sector,” said Bagnato. “The way we would make money off the line is charge people to move power on it.”
It was in 2013 that planning began in earnest for the Clean Power Link, Bagnato noted. TDI New England’s desire to pursue the project was in part fueled by the decision to close the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon and the opening of more than 600 megawatts of capacity on Vermont’s transmission system.
Plans call for the underwater cable to be laid entirely on the Vermont side of the lake, according to Bagnato, who said the applicants have engaged the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Ferrisburgh to help plan a route that would not affect any of the dozens of historic shipwrecks that repose on the floor of the lake. The LCMM performed a multi-year underwater mapping of the lake bed that has yielded numerous finds, including the remnants of the Revolutionary War gunboat USS Spitfire that participated in the Battle of Valcour Island in 1776.
Bagnato added the line would also be steered away from any shallows and fish hatcheries.
The line would consist of two solid-state cables, each 5 inches in diameter. The cables would consist of some metal armoring, rubber and a copper core and be devoid of any liquids that could leak, according to Bagnato. There are many other examples of electrical cables buried in bodies of water, including in the Atlantic Ocean, San Francisco Bay and Long Island Sound, Bagnato said.
“We’re going to try to stay in the deeper parts of the lake, as far away from the shore as we can be,” Bagnato said. “Where the water is less than 150 feet deep — which would be many spots off of Addison County — we would propose to trench the cable so there is about three feet of sediment over the cables. Where it is deeper than 150 feet, we propose to just lay it on the bottom of the lake.”
Bagnato called the transmission line “a pretty benign installation.” He said laying the cables would result in the temporary suspension of some sediments in the lake, but he does not foresee any potential environmental consequences during the anticipated 40-year use of the infrastructure.
“We have analyzed impacts to fish and fisheries, we have proposed certain times to install (the cable) based on considerations for fisheries when fish are active in certain parts of the lake,” Bagnato said.
Horizontal directional drilling would be used to transition the cables from the land into the lake, in order to not affect the shorelines, according to Bagnato. A barge floating on top of the lake would be used to drag a shear plow — not unlike a plow used to turn over soil in a field — to carve a trench into the bottom of the lake. The cable would be unreeled from the barge into the newly created trench. The lake sediment would fall back in over the trench, Bagnato said. The underwater route would first be cleared of any debris that might stymie the shear plow. Remote-operated cameras and divers would help inspect the site.
“I think we have looked at all aspects of installation and operation,” Bagnato said. “If anything was to compromise the cable — like cut into it — the power flow would immediately shut off. It’s got a fiber optic cable attached to it, so it can sense what is going on. It would be pretty challenging to cut through a cable like this, but if someone wanted to try, the power would be cut off instantaneously.”
Bagnato added the company has studied the potential for any electro-magnetic fields (EMFs) being generated by the cables.
“DC cables emit very minor electric fields,” he said. “It’s very different than AC cables. So (EMFs) are not really a concern.”
When the cables have exhausted their lifespan, the power would be shut off and they would be left in the lake, according to Bagnato.
“We think the cables would be pretty much sunk into the sediment,” he said. “To try to extract it would probably be more impactful than just leaving it there.”
TDI New England officials presented their proposal to the Addison County Regional Planning Commission back on Nov. 12, 2014. The regional planning commission — along with several state agencies and groups like the Conservation Law Foundation — have acquired status as intervenors in the Clean Power Link, which is now being reviewed by the Vermont Public Service Board through the Act 248 process.
ACRPC’s Act 248/Act 250 Committee has asked the commission to focus on potential impacts of the cable project, including how it might affect the Ticonderoga Ferry in Shoreham, fish in the lake, taxation, drinking water, and existing sludge beds, noted ACRPC Executive Director Adam Lougee. The planning commission is also interested in how the project might be an economic benefit to Vermont and the region.
“The jurisdictional and tax issues for the lake towns will probably focus on whether (the applicants) will need to pay property taxes on infrastructure beneath the lake,” Lougee said. “They have said they don’t. We still need to do a little more research to see whether there is fixed precedent to determine if (the applicants) are right.”
Lougee also pointed to concerns about whether the 1,000-megawatt project might fill up the capacity of the state’s existing transmission system, thereby potentially inhibiting other renewable energy projects from coming online in Addison County and the rest of Vermont.
“The transmission infrastructure is only so big,” Lougee said. “This is a very big project. The question I raised is when they hook into Ludlow at the Coolidge substation, that Vermont’s VELCO main transmission line. How much of that capacity do they take, and what does that mean to other Vermont-generated renewables?”
Lougee said the commission has not heard a lot of concern about the project from Addison County residents.
“We haven’t heard any significant public outcry,” Lougee said. “It’s under the lake, and the lake is very deep off most of Addison County.”
The ACRPC will need to submit its pre-filed testimony on the project to the PSB by this June, according to Lougee.
Bagnato said proponents of the project are hoping it will be permitted this year or next, which would result in construction during 2017 and 2018. It would then become operational in 2019. The Clean Power Link must receive several key permits if it is to proceed, including a Certificate of Public Good from the Public Service Board. The board convened a public hearing on the plan at Fair Haven Union High School on Feb. 24. That hearing drew around 40 people, of which approximately 10 spoke. Those speaking offered a mixture of concerns, positive feedback and clarification questions, according to Bagnato.
The project is now going through a federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review.
“They expect to have the draft Environmental Impact Statement out (this month),” Bagnato said. “Things are moving along.”
The Clean Power Link, Bagnato claimed, is also expected to benefit Vermont to the tune of:
•  $215.3 million in salaries, sales tax and various non-employment expenditures during the project construction period of 2016-2019.
•  $651.4 million in property taxes, corporate income taxes and Vermont Agency of Transportation lease payments during the life of the project. An average of $7.2 million in annual property taxes would be paid to the communities hosting the land-based segment of the cable.
•  $297.7 million in public good benefits during the life of the project, including $135.7 million in savings to Vermont electricity ratepayers; $40 million for Vermont renewable energy programs; $82 million for phosphorous cleanup in Lake Champlain; and $40 million for a “Lake Champlain Trust Fund.”
Overall, Bagnato reported the project “has been received quite positively. I’ve been speaking with a lot of towns and abutters. We have done a lot of outreach … I think the fact that it is buried, and it is proposed in the lake and alongside roads, takes a lot of people’s concerns away.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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