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Electric lines…..Underwater?

[ Laying line in San Francisco for the Trans Bay Cable project, which submerged 33 miles of cable. ]

What will they think of next?

Generating 20 percent of America’s electricity with wind, as recent studies proposed, would require building up to 22,000 miles of new high-voltage transmission lines. But the huge towers and unsightly tree-cutting that these projects require have provoked intense public opposition.

Recently, though, some companies are finding a remarkably simple answer to that political problem. They are putting power lines under water, in a string of projects that has so far provoked only token opposition from environmentalists and virtually no reaction from the larger public.

“The fish don’t vote,” said Edward M. Stern, president of PowerBridge, a company that built a 65-mile offshore cable from New Jersey to Long Island and is working on two more.

The projects have even drawn cautious enthusiasm from some environmental groups that say the new power lines serve their goal of getting the United States to use more renewable power.

“Environmentalists need to be open-minded to technology improvements, and looking at the big picture,” said Phillip Musegaas, program director for Riverkeeper, a New York environmental group focused on the Hudson River.

Mr. Musegaas’s open-mindedness will soon be put to the test, because Transmission Developers, a Toronto company, is proposing to use the Hudson for the most ambitious underwater transmission project yet. Beginning north of the Canadian border, a 370-mile line would run along the bottom of Lake Champlain, down the bed of the Hudson all the way to New York City. It would continue under Long Island Sound to Connecticut.

The project sponsors have only recently begun seeking the numerous permits they need, but if built, it would be one of the longest submarine power cables in the world. It would bring hydroelectricity to the power-thirsty New York City market. It would also break a stalemate; New York has not had a major new overhead power line in 20 years.

If Transmission Developers succeeds with such an ambitious project, other transmission developers are likely to study the underwater strategy to figure out just how far they can take it. Would power lines crossing the Great Lakes make sense? Could underwater cables be used to move renewable power from the windy Great Plains to cities like Chicago?

The cost of putting a cable under water can be lower than burying cables on land, because workers can lay the cables from giant reels, allowing stretches of more than a mile with no splices. The strategy is limited, of course, by the availability of rivers and lakes — they do not go everywhere power developers would like to run new lines. In fact, many of the country’s rivers run north or south, whereas much of the country’s power must move east or west.

And underwater lines are still more expensive than lines on transmission towers. Mr. Stern’s 65-mile cable cost about $600 million, and a 53-mile cable under San Francisco Bay cost about $505 million. Much of the cost in each case is to transform the electricity to direct current, a form that is easier to use in buried cables. Standard lines hung on towers run from $1 million to $4 million a mile, depending on terrain and other factors. If more underwater lines are built, the higher costs would have a small impact on electric bills.

Still, the underwater approach solves some intractable problems. In San Francisco, for example, old power plants that burn natural gas are about to be retired because a new transmission company has succeeded in running a line 33 miles across the San Francisco Bay.


March 17, 2010 Posted by | Breaking News, Counterpoints, Ecology, Government, Media, Other Things, The Economy, Travel, Updates | , | Leave a comment