If giant power lines cross Albany County, will local views or health be spoiled?
NEW SCOTLAND — Surrounded by a chainlink fence, an intricate arrangement of metal poles and wires sits calmly off Game Farm Road. Lines reach across the street like yarn in a loom, being pulled into the New Scotland substation where the power they hold zooms through Albany County.
Within the next few years, more lines will feed into the station, bringing with them a host of benefits, and possible drawbacks, ranging from health to aesthetic concerns.
Initially proposed by the New York Energy Highway Task Force in 2012, the “energy Superhighway” project aims to bring electricity from Canada and northern New York down to meet the ever-increasing energy needs of New York City. Four different companies put forth proposals to carry at least 1,000 megawatts of electricity that could be sourced from wind and hydroelectric power, as well as more conventional sources like natural gas and nuclear power.
The new transmission lines will span 150 miles of land from Utica in Oneida County down to Dutchess County. The lines slice right through Albany County, crossing Guilderland, New Scotland, and Bethlehem among other towns.
Four vie to build Superhighway
The four companies competing for their proposals to be accepted by the Public Service Commission are National Grid, NEXTera, Energy Transmission, North America Transmission, and Boundless Energy, LLC.
The proposals are being completed through a lengthy Article VII process through the PSC. Each company has its own plan for where the lines will be placed, and the placement is critical to how communities will react to the proposals.
Lawrence Willick, senior vice president of North America Transmission, said his company’s proposal requires easements, but not eminent domain, whereby the government takes private property for public use.
“We wouldn’t buy the land,” he said, “just the right to build on it.” North America Transmission’s current proposal designates about $10,000 per acre for landowners who would be affected under its plan. Details are in short supply from this Missouri-based company, as Part A within the Section VII process is intrinsically vague to allow for more specific research to be done in Part B.
“We are optimistic that it would be an opportunity that would benefit both New York and our company,” Willick said.
NEXTera Energy Transmission proposes using the existing corridor as well, but nowhere in its plan does it explicitly state that it will not need extra land to accommodate the new lines. If the NEXTera plan is chosen and it does end up requiring more land than the current corridor provides, it would have to use eminent domain, or be granted permission by the Public Service Commission to acquire land parallel to the current corridor, or purchase the corridor from National Grid, which is the current owner. NEXTera’s executive director of development, Monique Brechter, said “Our intent is to minimize landowner impact and maximize the use of existing land.”
The company plans to build a new substation near the existing New Scotland substation in order to carry a heavier load. The new lines detailed in its plan will be hoisted on concrete monopoles up to 95 feet tall and four feet wide at the base, narrowing down to about one and a half feet at the top.
A fourth company has put forward a bid for the job, Boundless Energy, LLC, but its proposal will not affect New Scotland. “They are currently proposing two projects well south of New Scotland,” said New Scotland town board member Daniel Mackay. Boundless plans to meet the requirements set forth by the PSC proposal by changing out the lines going from the Leeds substation to Hurley Avenue, and also by placing new conductors along existing lines, according to E. John Tompkins, the chief executive officer for Boundless. The new lines will weigh less than current lines but also be able to carry twice as much power. These new technologies will allow electricity to flow more efficiently, he said, without adding new lines.
“You wouldn’t be able to see the difference from the ground,” said Tompkins.
The right-of-way, or utility corridor, in New Scotland was described by Mackay as the widest in the whole state. National Grid estimates the width at 620 feet near the substation, though it varies as the corridor snakes through other towns.
This extra girth has allowed National Grid to state in its proposal that it will not need to acquire any more land through eminent domain or other legal means in order to successfully construct the new transmission lines.
“We believe, with reasonable confidence, that we will be able to fit and locate a new line within the corridor itself,” said Jim Bunyan, project manager for National Grid.
“One of the advantages that we have over some of the other projects is that we are the incoming utility. We know these communities, we’ve been going through and talking to them, we already have a relationship with them,” Bunyan said. “These are our customers.”
National Grid created a website and hotline for residents to voice their opinions and questions about the project.
“The idea of this is really to spur on more conversation about what our customers want to see,” Bunyan said. “These plans are tentative, the Part B will be a more permanent plan, but we’re actually looking for feedback right now.”
Pros and cons
One of the positive impacts of the new project will be the increased tax revenue. Utility companies pay taxes on the land where their facilities are located, as well as the lines, poles, and substations themselves.
“We pay taxes in about 800 municipalities in upstate New York,” said Patrick Stella, lead media relations representative for National Grid.
Additionally, at least 90 percent of the jobs needed to complete the project construction will be sourced in the areas where any new lines, substations, and transformers would be built.
Despite these positives, there are still several concerns to be had regarding placement of new, higher wattage, industrial transmission lines through New Scotland. Mackay is also the director of public policy for the Preservation League of New York State, and as such is watching the development of this project closely.
Daniel Driscoll, who has retired from a career working for the Department of Public Safety and Department of Environmental Conservation dealing with possible effects of power line electromagnetic fields, believes “there is ample evidence that the body can be influenced by low-level fields from powers lines.”
He goes on to note, however, that “research shows that people must live close to powers lines for the EMF [electromagnetic fields] to have an effect; childhood leukemia is one effect of concern. For high voltage power lines, people would have to live within about 150 feet of the line before I would be concerned.” He also described “high voltage” as around 765kV; the lines proposed by all four companies do not go over 400kV.
Both National Grid and North America Transmission stated that their proposals entail a specific way of arranging transformers on the lines that helps to cancel out some of the electromagnetic fields, decreasing the risk of adverse health effects.
“New York State is one of the few states in the country that has a design requirement that you have to meet,” said Bunyan, “and we will be within that design requirement for EMF.”
Mackay’s biggest concern with the coming lines — which won’t be built for another couple of years, no matter which company’s plan is chosen — is the aesthetic impact on New Scotland.
“We are a community that prides itself on rural and agricultural characteristics,” Mackay said, noting how having even more lines running through the town will take away from the charm of New Scotland.
When the corridor was established, starting in the 1950s all the way through the 1970s, land and environmental regulations were much different than now, trapping New Scotland as host to new lines as long as the corridor, and the power substation, exist.
Mackay boldly holds that New Scotland should be given a settlement by whichever company ends up having its proposal approved. His idea is that mitigation funds would go to protect and preserve environmental areas, barns, and historic sites in the town.
“I think there needs to be a financial settlement acknowledging that the corridor downtown has an impact not in line with the rural aesthetics of downtown New Scotland,” Mackay said. “Three, four, five million dollars; are we worth more than that? I’d like to think so.”
When asked what it thought of Mackay’s proposal, National Grid responded that a settlement wouldn’t be possible.
“That’s not something the Public Service Commission would allow the utility to do,” Bunyan said. Monetary settlement would have to be given to every town the lines went through to avoid anyone getting special treatment, and that would add tremendous amounts to what is sure to be a multi-million dollar project already.
Allison Ray, an environmental monitoring specialist for Burns & McDonnell which has been subcontracted by National Grid specifically for this project, said there are rules in place in the Article VII process that require companies to account for any impacts their plans may have on the immediate environment.
“Unique to the state of New York, before you even start construction,” she said, “you have to identify what all those impacts would be and how they would be mitigated, and you have to put together a plan and show how that’s possible.”
These provisions detail things like rare or endangered species, historic sites, and agricultural lands.
National Grid is aware of the possibility of its project decreasing the beauty of the towns it goes through, and wants to minimize the visual impact new lines and towers will have. This can be accomplished by keeping new towers in the same line of sight as existing towers, Bunyan said. Additionally, it may be able to replace two aging sets of lines with one new line in certain parts of the corridor.
“I’ve lived in New York State my entire life but three years… When we’re talking to communities, saying this with a smile, anything that anyone has asked for is not something we have not already thought of,” said Bunyan. “If it was in my backyard, this is what I would want to see.”