Modernizing New York’s Energy Infrastructure the Smart Way

By Rod Lenfest

New York state’s electric grid is in dire need of repair. Estimates are that it will take $30 billion over the next 10 years to maintain the state’s existing electric system – and that’s just to repair the aging infrastructure. There is broad agreement on these basic facts, but how we remedy the situation is a matter of intense debate.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has identified this issue as a key priority for the state, and he has laid out an ambitious vision for rebuilding New York’s high voltage electrical system using socially and environmentally responsible approaches. New York’s current transmission system is outdated, causing congestion problems that prevent cleaner and more affordable sources of energy from moving freely across the state. A properly designed energy highway can embrace the Renewing the Energy Vision concept of distributed generation, allowing the exchange of energy – especially renewable energy – from wherever it’s produced to wherever it may be needed, whether it be offshore wind and low-cost natural gas, or upstate wind, hydro and solar.

The problem is in how the state’s Public Service Commission has attempted to carry out this vision. The commission recently completed its review of competing proposals to expand energy transmission capacity across the Mohawk Valley (west to east) and the Hudson Valley (north to south). Rather than conducting an open review based on the merits, the commission has attempted to clear the playing field for the big utility companies. Throughout the process, Public Service Commission staff repeatedly shifted the goalposts to favor their preferred developers and ultimately tried to eliminate the only proposal with no impact on the environment.

The Public Services Commission has tried to eliminate the Boundless Leeds Path West project – which proposed a small tunnel to be drilled far below the Hudson River, without environmental impact – and tie the hands of the New York Independent System Operator.

The commission’s overly detailed public policy statements assert that projects “must not cross the Hudson River.” There is rationale for prohibiting additional overhead crossings: they are unsightly and could have an environmental impact and additional cables laid on the floor of the Hudson River could lead to contamination. But the blanket ban on river crossing only serves to limit the Boundless Leeds Path West project. In reality, connecting the transmission systems on the western and eastern sides of the Hudson River would have substantial beneficial system impacts, a fact that the Public Services Commission conveniently overlooked by instituting its ban and refusing the Boundless petition for rehearing.

Under pressure, the commission has conceded that the process remains open. The ultimate decision rests with the state Independent System Operator, the entity responsible for managing the flow of electricity across New York.

The fact that this process remains open is good news for the environment and residents of the Hudson Valley. There is still time to choose the one option that balances the need to deliver energy capacity with real concerns about the impact of massive construction in sensitive areas.

The Boundless Energy Leeds Path West project would allow New York to have its energy cake and eat it, too. The project uses innovative technology, including stronger and more efficient composite conductors and less intrusive installation techniques, to build the entire project within the existing right-of-way envelope – the only project that does so. This approach solves the issue of modernizing and decongesting the state’s transmission system while providing a strong foundation for the future and maintaining a secure sense of values for the environment and for society.

The proposals favored by the Public Services Commission would cost twice as much without resolving critical long-term challenges such as storm resiliency. These plans would require the construction of a new substation on grassland where none now exists, as well as increasing the average height of existing towers – avoidable negative impacts on the environment. The commission has also chosen to ignore the potentially costly system impact these projects may have on New England, for which New York ratepayers would be financially responsible.

Given the important role that energy infrastructure plays in the economy and our everyday lives, it is critical that this decision be made with accurate information and a full understanding of how each project would impact the region. While late in the process, there is still time to make the best choice for consumers and the environment.

Rod Lenfest is the president of Boundless Energy.