• New York OKs underground and underwater transmission lines to deliver upstate clean energy to NYC
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New York OKs underground and underwater transmission lines to deliver upstate clean energy to NYC

Can buried lines help major transmission projects avoid the battles that too often prevent rural clean power from reaching cities?
By Jeff St. John

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New York City is set to receive gigawatts of clean power from HVDC transmission lines submerged under the Hudson River. (Greg Keelen via Unsplash)

New York City needs a lot of clean power to meet its zero-carbon goals. Upstate New York produces a lot of clean power, and so does Canada. But right now, there isn’t enough transmission grid capacity to connect these areas.

On Monday, New York leaders announced two big transmission projects designed to bridge this north-south clean power divide. To help overcome the barriers that have stymied many similar projects in the past, both will use high-voltage direct-current cables buried underground and, in some places, under the waters of the Hudson River.

State policymakers have aimed for years to link up New York’s renewables-rich upstate region and the fossil-fuel-dependent New York City area. New York City gets about 85 percent of its electricity from fossil fuel plants, many of them located in disadvantaged communities that are harmed by air pollution from the facilities. By contrast, upstate New York gets about 88 percent of its electricity from carbon-free resources, including ample hydropower, a growing share of wind and, more recently, solar projects.

In a Monday announcement coinciding with the opening day of Climate Week NYC, New York Governor Kathy Hochul (D) highlighted how these projects could help us turn the page on New York City’s long-standing dependence on fossil fuels.” In addition to creating thousands of jobs and driving about $8.2 billion in economic development, the transmission projects are expected to reduce carbon emissions by 77 million metric tons and save $2.9 billion in public-health costs from reduced air pollution over the next 15 years.

But the projects aren’t a done deal yet. Both were selected as part of a process launched in January by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, so they still must go through final contract negotiation and approval. Once contracts are finalized, the New York Public Service Commission must approve them. Payment for the projects will be dependent upon local approvals, completion of construction, and delivery of power to New York City.

The larger of the two projects is the 1,250-megawatt Champlain Hudson Power Express, which has been in the works since 2013. It would connect hydropower from Canadian utility Hydro-Québec via a 339-mile corridor running under Lake Champlain, underground along transportation rights of way through Schenectady and Albany, and under the Hudson River for most of the rest of the distance to New York City.

The project is expected to cost about $2.2 billion and start delivering power to New York City in 2025. It is being developed by Transmission Developers, Inc., which is owned by private equity firm Blackstone.

The second project announced Monday, Clean Path New York, comes from Forward Power, a joint venture of EnergyRe and Invenergy, in partnership with public utility New York Power Authority. Unlike the first project, this one bundles new transmission with new clean energy — about 3,400 megawatts of new wind and solar capacity to be built upstate by EnergyRe and Invenergy, the latter a major clean energy developer.

Of the project’s $11 billion price tag, about $3.5 billion would go toward building a 174-mile high-voltage direct-current transmission line capable of carrying 1,300 MW of power from upstate to New York City, with completion set for 2027. The remainder of the budget would fund the new wind and solar.

The New York Power Authority will provide the right of way for much of the project underneath its existing 345-kilovolt overhead transmission line running from Utica to Orange County, with the remaining stretch buried along roadways and underneath the Hudson River. NYPA will also balance out the variability of the new wind and solar with its Blenheim-Gilboa pumped-hydropower storage facility, which uses excess clean energy to pump water uphill and then releases it back down through power turbines to generate additional electricity when needed. 

Transmission route and projects (NYSERDA)

What the rest of the country can learn from New York’s progress on transmission

Luke Falk, vice president with EnergyRE, highlighted several novel aspects of the Clean Path NY project that have helped it overcome impasses that have halted other ambitious transmission projects in the past.

One is its financial structure. While the power itself will be sold on the energy markets operated by NYISO, New York’s grid operator, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority has agreed to buy the renewable energy credits of the clean power to be generated from the wind and solar associated with the project over a 25-year term, he said. That makes the whole project financeable because there’s an assured buyer,” he said. That’s not the case for many of the long-haul transmission lines that traverse multiple state jurisdictions.”

The second is its use of underground high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) line along existing rights of way to minimize the risk of opposition from landowners and communities along the path of the project, he said. We think that using existing rights of way is less impactful, both ecologically and in terms of communities and view corridors,” he said. We think that this project will serve as an example for the rest of the nation on how to solve these complex issues.”

There’s certainly a need for strategies to enable massive grid expansion that can accommodate large amounts of new wind and solar power. Proposed transmission projects can face a decade or more of challenges related to siting, permitting and cost allocation. These hurdles have fatally tripped up several high-profile projects over the past decade.

Burying HVDC cables along existing railroads and highways can dramatically simplify the process, bypassing the need to get permits from multiple states, counties and private landholders for overhead transmission towers. Technology advances over the past decade have allowed these types of projects to compete with overhead lines on cost.

If built according to the current plan, the Champlain Hudson Power Express project would become the longest underground HVDC line in the U.S., usurping that title from the 65-mile, 660-megawatt Neptune Regional Transmission System undersea and underground cable connecting the Long Island Power Authority to New Jersey. (Down the road, the Champlain Hudson Power Express project could be supplanted by the SOO Green HVDC Link, another underground transmission project proposing to carry 2.1 gigawatts of power 350 miles from wind-rich Iowa to the outskirts of Chicago.)

Transmission developers, utilities and clean energy industry groups have been demanding a range of policy changes to break open the logjam on major grid development over the past half-decade or so. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is conducting a year-long process to consider ways to enable more large-scale, long-range transmission to connect wind- and sun-rich parts of the country to the major population centers where power is most sorely needed.

The budget reconciliation bill proposed by Democrats in the House of Representatives would extend federal tax credits to transmission projects, while the infrastructure bill passed by the Senate this summer would provide billions of dollars to back transmission projects, as well as extend authority to the Department of Energy to fast-track permitting.

Larry Gasteiger, executive director of the Wires transmission trade group, said that New York’s projected economic boost from the two transmission projects gives an indication of how much a national grid expansion could achieve. A recent Wires report found that $83 billion in planned transmission projects could add $42 billion to gross domestic product, create more than 400,000 jobs and inject nearly $40 billion into local economies.

It’s time to start realizing these types of environmental and economic benefits throughout the country,” he said.

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.