Burying power lines is a win-win for taxpayers

The unusual October snowstorm that resulted in electric outages of two weeks or more in some areas of New England has re-energized the discussion about underground vs. overhead transmission lines.State and local officials, FEMA, policymakers and consumers are asking why public utilities don’t just convert existing lines to underground lines and thereby eliminate causes of power outages, such as snow and ice storms, tree contacts, lightning, wildlife, vehicles and fires. The utilities’ answer is that it’s way too expensive.That may be, and converting all of New Hampshire’s existing overhead lines to underground may have to be done gradually and piecemeal. But one place where lines could be put underground from the outset, and sooner rather than later, is in the proposed corridor for the Northern Pass transmission project.The line is still several years away from construction — if indeed it passes all the state, local and federal regulatory hurdles — but it makes sense to be considering this now, not after the fact.PSNH, Northeast Utilities’ subsidiary in the Northern Pass project, has summarily dismissed suggestions to bury the planned 140 miles of lines. But Hydro Quebec, a partner in the project and the financier, recommends doing so. That is because Hydro Quebec knows this it is the latest technology and that the initial costs for burying lines are eventually outweighed by lower maintenance costs and less likelihood of damage.Hydro Quebec’s own literature states that the primary benefits of “undergrounding” transmission lines are aesthetics, or the lack of “visual impact,” and reduced impacts from the “electric field”(which some authorities claim is a link to childhood leukemia), both of which are major concerns of those of us who oppose the Northern Pass project.So why does PSNH continue to be the holdout on underground transmission lines?The real story is that burying lines would hurt PSNH’s bottom line, with New Hampshire’s taxpayers, not PSNH stockholders, seeing the financial benefits from the Northern Pass.The current Northern Pass project plan puts above-ground towers and transmission lines on PSNH rights of way. In this scenario, PSNH would get payments for renting its rights of way for the Northern Pass transmission lines. Future additions to the corridor could bring PSNH even more revenue.While there are no numbers available on what that revenue would be, we can surmise that the value of the existing PSNH transmission corridor to Northern Pass would run to the hundreds of millions of dollars.Recent offers and purchases for parcels of land in the North Country — $500,000 for one 100-acre parcel with roughly 0.4 miles of proposed right of way — indicate a value of roughly $1.25 million per lineal mile of right of way. This would equate to a $175 million payment to PSNH in exchange for the Northern Pass Project’s use of the existing 140 miles of PSNH rights of way. Wouldn’t it be better if all or some of that went to the state?Other states are doing just that. The alternative of burying lines, which competing transmission projects in New York and Maine plan to do, would likely mean moving them to existing roadbeds or interstate highway rights of way like Interstates 93 and 89 in New Hampshire.The result would be that PSNH would lose that share of revenue that it desperately needs to stay afloat. Instead, the state would receive the revenue, making this a win-win for the taxpayers and for New Hampshire.Maine passed a law last year that defines “statutory corridors” for energy infrastructure development and designates Interstates 95 and 295 as energy infrastructure corridors. There is no reason New Hampshire couldn’t use this as a model and start to examine the environmental, financial and logistical benefits of energy infrastructure corridors along our interstate highways.PSNH may want to avoid bankruptcy by using outmoded above-ground power towers and transmission lines, but that does not mean that New Hampshire legislators, regulators and consumers should not be more forward-thinking and insist on undergrounding the Northern Pass project.The discussion needs to start now.Joe Drinon lives in Chichester.