A proposal by private developers to run a $1.5 billion transmission line down the Hudson River is a sign of things to come.
The 260-mile-long Empire State Connector line would connect upstate renewable projects and nuclear providers with the New York City market. The high-voltage electrical current line would run through the Erie Canal and along the Hudson River and be buried underground in some spots.
It’s the type of major energy-infrastructure project New York can expect to see more of as the Cuomo administration moves the state toward reliance on cleaner, smaller power producers instead of large coal or gas-fired plants.
“The Empire State Connector project is an especially welcome proposal that I will be following closely because it promises to have very low environmental impact and virtually no visual impact, and would facilitate the transmission – from upstate to downstate – of ultra-clean and zero carbon-emitting electricity,” said State Sen. Joe Griffo, who chairs the Senate’s energy committee and whose district includes the origination point of the proposed line in the Utica region.
Transmission growth is the next key step in New York’s energy plan. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has mandated that the state power half of its energy grid by renewables by 2030 – a goal that requires an unprecedented growth of clean energy in that time.
The $5 billion Clean Energy Fund will help achieve those goals, and is designed to spread solar panels and wind turbines across the state and expand hydropower. At the same time, Cuomo’s administration has shown a willingness to kill off projects based on fossil fuels, rejecting the Constitution pipeline, which would have transported natural gas from Pennsylvania. Instead, his administration is encouraging large-scale wind projects, including several in the North Country, and creating incentives for large solar farms where smaller providers can connect to the grid.
The administration’s Reforming Energy Vision plan to make the grid more efficient and more reliant on renewables will need transmission lines as a backbone, the state’s independent grid operator has determined. Without more of them, the administration’s signature energy initiatives could be delayed, the New York Independent System Operator found.
“The exposure to age-related retirements of New York’s generating fleet, increasingly stringent environmental regulations, the expansion of renewable generation upstate and the aging of New York’s transmission facilities all point out the critical need for investment in the electric transmission infrastructure,” former NYISO president Stephen Whitley wrote to the Public Service Commission last year.
But the system cannot shift to clean energy unless it has more ways to connect that power to the larger grid and to move it from upstate areas, where land is cheap and projects easier to site, to downstate, where power needs are greatest. And though Cuomo has been in office for six years, proponents of transmission lines say there has not been enough movement on the transmission line infrastructure the state will need for the future grid.
The Cuomo administration has mostly deferred decisions on proposed transmission lines, withholding approvals as they sat ready to be built, said Ted Skerpon, chairman of the New York State IBEW Utility Labor Council, the union that represents transmission line builders. Since lines can take years to build, that can set back the state’s energy goals for years, he said.
“We have a bottleneck, we can’t get power anywhere,” he said. “You’re never going to get your windmills or your solar panels anywhere if we don’t have the lines.”
Essential as they may be, constructing power lines also poses political challenges. Siting the lines can involve seizing property through eminent domain, dividing farm land or building taller towers to hold the lines. Those were some of the issues cited by groups that protested proposed transmission lines in the Hudson Valley, which the state is now moving to approve and could be built within the next few years.
Perhaps more to the point, transmission lines cost money. Utilities build the lines and bill the ratepayers, so a series of transmission line approvals from the Cuomo administration could raise monthly utility bills. By delaying the approvals, the Cuomo administration can avoid being blamed for those rising rates.
However, as smaller power sources come online, along with utility-scale solar and wind projects, they will need to connect to the grid. And power will need to move from upstate sources to downstate, one of the hardest and most expensive places to site renewable projects.
That means New York will need billions of dollars in transmission lines to transport the power. After delaying key pieces of the Energy Highway proposal to move more upstate power downstate, the Cuomo administration has begun to move again on those projects.
“It’s very important for New York as we move forward that we are able to integrate a lot more green generation, a lot more solar generation and even increased hydro generation into the system in order to meet the clean energy mandate,” PSC chairwoman Audrey Zibelman said in December, as the state advanced a major transmission upgrade for the Hudson Valley. “All of those resources are located far from load. You need transmission in order to be able to move it.”
And while advocates argue the Empire State Connector is certainly the type of project that needs to be built, it also happens to meet a series of specific needs the Cuomo administration had outlined in recent months. Developers say it will connect more renewables to the grid, which is certainly true. More significantly, it would allow more nuclear power from a region that is home to four of the state’s six active reactors to reach the lucrative New York City market.
Most of the state’s nuclear facilities are struggling to compete with cheap natural gas. The state has a plan to subsidize them until more renewables can be built out, but a new transmission line to one of the country’s biggest power markets could be transformative.
Elsewhere in the state, transmission lines have been sought as solutions to closing struggling coal plants. Both the Dunkirk and Cayuga coal-burning power plants could be replaced with transmission lines, which would save consumers money, according to the local utilities.
Other proposed power lines appear to have stalled indefinitely. The 333-mile-long Champlain Hudson Power Express, projected to cost $2.2 billion, would run down Lake Champlain and the Hudson River to bring Canadian hydropower to meet New York City’s demand. However, industry experts say it will be nearly impossible to build without state subsidies, which developers have said they will not seek. That project, which has most of the permits it needs, appears to be on hold as developers delay the start of construction.
Meanwhile, the most significant transmission upgrade in years is inching toward construction. The AC transmission project in the Hudson Valley cleared a key state hurdle in December. That $1 billion proposal would rebuild 156 miles of transmission lines and some of the poles that support them and would increase the amount of upstate power that could be moved downstate.
Still, with a lead time on permitting and siting of transmission projects that can take up to a decade, New York needs to move faster, said Skerpon, of the IBEW Utility Labor Council.
“Enough is enough,” he said. “Are we going to wait for brownouts and blackouts?”
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