Friday, June 22, 2012

Easement Setbacks: Northern Pass Shoots Itself in the Foot

Easement setbacks are the distances from the edge of the right-of-way (ROW) that utility poles and towers are located. FERC has issued new guidelines concerning setback distances for new overhead power lines.

In a late Friday afternoon post on its website blog for June 22, Northern Pass took a swipe at a video produced by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Entitled "Northern Pass Hurts New Hampshire Families," the video features a young family in Deerfield NH; the PSNH ROW crosses their land. The couple recounts how a PSNH agent approached them and told them that Northern Pass could build as close as 16' to their house. In other words, the setback for a 90'-140' transmission tower and wires would be 0 from the edge of the ROW. This was an attempt to get the couple to grant PSNH more land or rights to widen the existing ROW.

In its post, Northern Pass asserts that the family's house is 20' from the ROW and the centerline of the ROW is therefore 55' from the house (statistics that are irrelevant to the issue of how close to the house Northern Pass would actually construct its towers), says the couple is distorting the truth, and then blames it on the Forest Society.

We'll let you decide who is lying, the Deerfield couple or Northern Pass. But why is Northern Pass so worried about the Deerfield video?

It has partly to do with easement setbacks and how much space utility developers should have on a ROW in order to build a new power line. The most recent guidelines from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), issued May 31, 2012, would stop Northern Pass from building their new overhead transmission line on PSNH's historic, narrow easements, acquired 60 to 80 years ago.

FERC has issued its setback guidelines as the conclusion to its staff study of the massive power outages that resulted from the October 2011 nor'easter snowstorm, which caused estimated damages of $1 billion to $3 billion in New England and adjacent states. It became fashionable among utilities to blame the whole mess on the trees, not on the response to the outages, and, indeed, limbs and branches falling on power lines was the direct reason for much of the problem. But trees are a (splendid) fact of life in the northeast. The immmediate question for FERC was what to do about the overlap of trees and power lines, the ongoing conflict between nature and technology, in this case, overhead high voltage transmission lines. The distribution lines that run along roads and bring power into your house may be able to tolerate contact with trees; high voltage transmission lines cannot.

In the case of existing power lines, FERC sides with the lines. It recommends more prudent and consistent vegetation management -- tree cutting -- by utility companies so that even limbs and branches outside the easement do not endanger existing power lines. Call it eminent-domain-by- vegetation-management if you will.

For new power lines, however, FERC comes down on the side of the existing trees. That is, FERC recommends that new power lines have sufficient set backs to prevent "fall ins" -- trees outside the easement falling in on the lines. The burden is on the developer to acquire wide enough ROWs to accommodate existing and future vegetation conditions outside its easement. Put simply, new power lines should not hug the edges of the ROW.

Here's what FERC said:

Preventing fall-ins from both inside and outside the right-of-way is easier if utilities consider vegetation management needs when siting new transmission lines and acquiring new easements. Therefore, staff recommends that utilities carefully assess vegetation and growth rates in the area of planned lines in order to establish the appropriate right-of-way width. For example, if native trees have a mature height of 100 feet, the easement should cover an area wide enough to ensure that existing and future trees outside of the right-of-way will not fall into the facilities. [Emphases added.]

If native trees, such as New Hampshire's ubiquitous white pines that reach 100', abut the ROW, then new transmission structures should be set back 100' from the edge of the ROW. That only seems like common sense -- and common safety. Responsible utility developers use the wire zone - border zone model, and FERC now recommends that it incorporate fall-in data to ensure safety and reliability.* (Well before FERC's new guideline, the first high voltage direct current line, in western New Hampshire, observed this common sense precaution when it constructed the line in the early 1990's.)

Now go back and watch the Deerfield video again. Presuming that the ROW is fully cleared, tall trees abut the easement. There is no fall-in hazard for the existing power line. But if Northern Pass tries to crowd its new transmission facilities onto this easement, the structures would have to be within the fall-in zone. FERC would conclude that the current PSNH ROW is not wide enough for the safe addition of a new high voltage transmission line.

There are countless examples like this along PSNH's 140-mile existing ROW. One of the more egregious instances occurs in Easton, Lincoln, and Woodstock. Northern Pass proposes to construct two new high voltage lines -- one with 110' poles and the other with 120' towers -- within a 150' width bordered by tall white pines. This will give "tree-hugging" a new definition.

The Deerfield video exposes a fatal flaw in what Northern Pass proposes up and down the narrow PSNH ROW. It's not a question of whether the Deerfield family's house is 16' or 20' from the ROW. It is a much more fundamental question of whether Northern Pass should construct new transmission facilities at all on this ROW.

FERC says no. Before it was prohibited from using eminent domain to seize more land adjacent to PSNH's ROW, Northern Pass agreed that PSNH's easement was too narrow. Northern Pass had planned to use eminent domain to expand the Deerfield ROW as well as those in twelve other communities. Now that it cannot seize the extra land that it needs, Northern Pass apparently plans to proceed full steam ahead anyway and simply overburden the ROW with towers of much greater heights but still insufficient set backs.

The Forest Society is correct. As proposed, Northern Pass would hurt New Hampshire families, whether or not they live next to the ROW. It would overload PSNH's narrow easements and threaten health, safety, and the reliability of the entire electrical grid. Tree-hugging transmission lines are a recipe for disaster in the next big ice, snow or wind storm. FERC has issued the warning.

Don't be fooled if Northern Pass says that it will follow applicable industry standards and requirements concerning the placement of towers on easements. Northern Pass would be referring to the National Electrical Safety Code (NESC). NESC standards concern only the necessary clearances between conductors (live wires) and stationary objects, not the necessary clearances between live wires crowded close to the edge of the ROW and the trees than can fall in upon them from outside the ROW. NESC rules do not include the "real time" safety provisions that FERC is now recommending in its effort to insure the planning of new transmission lines that do not threaten the reliability of the entire grid.

Of course, none of this would pertain if Northern Pass buried the lines. Underground "light" cables do not require much clearance space, and this innovative technology is the answer for developers who want to add new lines to already overcrowded ROWs. The technology exists now to build new high voltage transmission lines that would not harm New Hampshire's families, environment, and economy. Maine, Vermont, and New York will all be using this underground technology. It is widely used in Europe, which has the same crowded conditions for utilities as New England does. Why would New Hampshire accept any less?

If you are concerned about the safety and reliability of the new high voltage power line that Northern Pass proposes to add to PSNH's narrow ROW, you may tell the lead regulatory agency, the Department of Energy, to look into the matter here.

Ask political candidates for NH offices if they are aware of FERC's new guidelines and what they are doing to support and expedite the work of the new study commission to bury high voltage power lines in state transportation corridors.


*study commissioned by FERC in 2004 reached the same conclusion:
 "The ideal transmission line route would be one where vegetation would not grow or fall into the facilities, given reasonable and ongoing maintenance. While this may not be realistic with many lines, it can and should be an objective for the siting of future lines." [Emphases added.]