National Grid greets Block Island community

Holds open house detailing cable transmission system
Fri, 06/26/2015 - 8:30am
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A team of nine National Grid representatives expressed their excitement in helping construct an integral component of the nation's first offshore wind farm when they hosted an open house at the Block Island Community Center on Tuesday, June 23. National Grid is responsible for the $107 million transmission system that will link the mainland to the Town of New Shoreham, which will be connected to the Block Island Wind Farm.

"It's a very interesting project. You don't have projects like this come along very often," said Bob Williams, who is lead engineer, substation and design, for National Grid. "We're still working through some of the challenges, but it's a very exciting project."

"It is very exciting for the company, for all of us that are involved in this project," said Shannon Baxevanis, a project manager for National Grid. "It's unique. It's different than other projects that we're working on, and great to be a part of something that is so historic."

All of the National Grid representatives agreed that they will feel even more excited when the wind farm is "plugged in" and operating.

"It's a lot of work," said Williams. "It's not like we're at a point where we can just let it happen. We're still working to make it happen."

In the project's overview, circulated in a handout at the open house, it notes that "National Grid will build, own and operate the majority of the new electrical infrastructure needed to connect the Block Island Wind Farm to the electric grid on Block Island and mainland Rhode Island. This project, sea2shore: The Renewable Link, is a reflection of the company's Connect21 commitment for bringing clean, renewable energy to customers."

"There's a lot of familiarity with doing this. We do this work all of the time," said Baxevanis, who noted that National Grid has 855 unrelated and different types of projects in the pipeline. "We learned a lot from when we did the Nantucket cable. We have a lot of lessons learned that we've shared over the years."

"We've laid hundreds of miles of submarine cables for stretches that connect wind farms in the UK and Europe," said David Graves, media relations representative for National Grid.

The utility company will be tasked with laying 20 miles of submarine cable through state and federal waters from Scarborough Beach in Narragansett to Crescent Beach on Block Island. It is a project that will be rife with unknowns, but it will have seasoned engineers at the helm guiding the cable along the seafloor and over existing transatlantic cables and around other obstacles.

"We have to go over the transatlantic cable," said David Campilii, a consulting engineer for National Grid. "It will take about a month to install the marine cable" that connects Block Island to the mainland.

"That's basically about a mile a day," said Everett Shorey, who serves on the Electric Utilities Task Group.

Shorey asked Campilii about his experience with submarine cables failing. Campilii said that "most of them historically are caused by third-party damage; fishing equipment, anchor snags, things like that."

The National Grid representatives noted that they are experienced and prepared to repair a damaged submarine cable. "There are techniques for repairing marine cables both near shore and out to sea," said Campilii.

"So if there's a failure, what's the amount of time one could expect it to be repaired?" asked Shorey.

"For a typical submarine failure, it's usually measured in months," said Campilii.

"As we're sitting here looking at a restructuring plan for BIPCo, one of the questions is, what's our requirement for backup or standby power?" asked Shorey.

Campilii told Shorey that if the National Grid-owned and -operated transmission cable is out due to failure, then Block Island will have to find alternative means to provide power for the island. "There's only one cable," said Campilii.

"So, what you're basically saying is that if it's out, it's out for months," said Shorey.

Shorey then became engaged in a discussion with New Shoreham Second Warden Norris Pike, who was in attendance, about backup power generation. The issue of the Block Island Power Company (BIPCo) maintaining its backup diesel generators was discussed and has become a conundrum for town officials. On one hand the generators provide backup insurance in case the submarine cable goes out, but they also are costly to maintain and harmful to the environment.

"The clear thought here is, there's no good reason to get rid of those generators," said Shorey.

"A couple of them are new, or generally new, and leased, aren't they?" asked Pike.

"If they're leased, it's basically a purchase lease," noted Shorey.

During the open house, Campilii said that the 20-mile submarine cable from Scarborough Beach to Crescent Beach will weigh 4.9 million pounds. He noted, for comparison, that the second submarine cable that National Grid installed to Nantucket, which was 27.6 miles long, weighs 3.4 million pounds. The reason for the disparity in weight, he said, is "the Block Island cable has a much larger conductor, and some of the shielding layers are heavier on the Block Island cable. Impressive weight for both, but Block Island gets weight bragging rights.”

Displays set up at the forum provided information about various components of the transmission system. There were diagrams about the jet plow that will lay the submarine cable under the seabed. And there was a display featuring the physical hardware associated with the project, including sample pieces of the submarine cable, land cable and fiber optic cable. The National Grid representatives spent the meeting interacting with members of the public, answering questions and providing detailed information about the project.  

"Working with the community is really important to us," said Baxevanis. "For me this is the exciting part, because now we get to talk to everybody about all the good stuff that we're going to do. And we hope that everybody learns about all of the benefits that this project's going to bring to the community."

Baxevanis said that her job is to provide community outreach via social media and other communication mediums for the utility company. "Any way that we can engage with folks, having these sorts of meetings, making people aware of what we're doing and introducing them to our experts, is really important. That's my piece of the puzzle in all of this," she said.

Baxevanis noted that National Grid representatives will be doing door-to-door canvassing of properties that are within about 100 feet of any construction work so that people will know beforehand what's going on. She also noted that there will be a hotline, social media info and a FAQ section on National Grid's website to learn more about the project.

"I hope that a big, bright light is shining on this project in a really positive way," said Baxevanis. "This is work people should know about, and how it all connects into their daily lives. This is all good news stuff."