Sunday, April 22, 2012

Hydro-Quebec's "long extension cord"

The rhetorical trope of the Northern Pass high voltage direct current transmission line as a long extension cord is common in Opposition comments on the project. Where did it originate?

Opposition members frequently refer to Northern Pass's proposed HVDC transmission line as an "extension cord." This figure of speech is apt insofar as an extension cord connects a power source to an end-user application or appliance. And an extension cord is a dedicated, exclusive conduit, as the Northern Pass line would be for Hydro-Quebec. But the Opposition also uses the extension cord metaphor or simile because it is entirely inaccurate in a major respect and thereby points to a fundamental problem with Northern Pass: the way in which project proponents try to dismiss or minimize its impact.

That is, an extension cord is innocuous, relatively invisible. It is so much a part of the background that UL recommends bright safety colors (ironically, orange) to make it stand out. In contrast, a 140-mile transmission line that runs through more than 1800 individual parcels of private land, over the White Mountains, and down the narrow corridor valleys of New Hampshire on 135' steel towers spaced every 600'-800' would be anything but invisible and innocuous. By implication, an extension cord is only important in terms of what it connects to what, energy source to user, not for the inconsequential gap between the two. In contrast, the 140 mile route through New Hampshire is anything but a negligible gap to be closed; it brims with life, commerce, residences, hopes, dreams, heritage.

Although the extension cord analogy ironically points to what project apologists now ignore, the Opposition did not invent it. To James Robb, senior vice president for planning and development at Northeast Utilities, goes the apparent credit for coining it in a New York Times column on June 15, 2009:

A 'long extension cord' to cool New England

Hydro-Québec, the Montreal-based utility, has power to spare in summers, when New England needs it to meet peak demand driven by air conditioning. The DC line would start in its system and deliver power to New England over a closed cable that would bypass the alternating current (AC) grid en route. It assures Hydro-Québec that its power will go through whether or not the AC grid is congested, and it knows the transmission costs will be fixed in advance by contract, Robb explained.

"For Hydro-Québec, it's like having a long extension cord," Robb said. Northeast Utilities and NSTAR, the Boston-based power company that is its partner in the project, would build and pay for the line. Hydro-Québec would pay the companies for its use, based on the construction costs and a return. The Canadian company will sell the power competitively to utilities via long-term contracts, Robb said. "The market risk is borne by Hydro-Québec," he added. The project would provide a certain outlet for its power as it proceeds with a major expansion of hydropower facilities in its region.

Northern Pass apologists no longer use the extension cord analogy because it ironically draws attention to what they would minimize: the impact of the towers on New Hampshire's economy and environment -- and all that to run air conditioners in Boston in the summer. But back in 2009 and well into 2010, project officials were still telling it like it would be if the project were ever built.

For more early "straight talk" on Northern Pass by PSNH, see Patrick McDermott's prophetic 2010 comments on how hard it would be to sell the project to New Hampshire.