Deepwater explains why it's going for longer cable

Mon, 11/21/2011 - 3:15pm
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Deepwater Wind representatives met with the Electric Utility Task Group Tuesday to give an update on progress surveying the ocean floor along the proposed route of a submarine electric transmission cable.

The company is investing $6 million this fall to complete the necessary studies of the marine topography required to apply for permits from a host of state and federal agencies to allow it to install the cable and a five-turbine wind farm three miles off the island’s southeastern coast.

Deepwater CEO Bill Moore and Deepwater Chief Administrative Officer Jeffrey Grybowski addressed questions over why a shorter cable route, making landfall in Charlestown, was not being investigated.

The Deepwater cable is estimated to cost in excess of $40 million, more than twice what a 2007 study by HDR, consultants hired by the town of New Shoreham, estimated a stand-alone cable would cost landing at Charlestown. The disparity is largely due to the increased cable length needed to travel up Narragansett Bay.

The Charlestown location was dismissed by Deepwater early on as unsuitable for a cable landing for a number of reasons, according to Grybowski. The Rhode Island coast west of Point Judith has an area of “hard cobbles” that the cable would have to be laid through, said Grybowski.

The hard cobbles would preclude the use of a jet-plow, which is used in sandier areas, and would drive up costs. It is also an important habitat for lobster and several species of fish, he said, which would make it more difficult to gain regulatory approval.

There are additional regulatory issues with the Charlestown location, said Grybowski. The North Cape oil spill occurred in that area and may have left some oil trapped in the ocean floor. Grybowski explained that the Coastal Resources Management Council would be reluctant to disturb that area due to concerns about releasing the oil.

The beach where the cable would land is a barrier beach with several salt ponds behind it. It is a sensitive habitat that would present a difficult and lengthy regulatory approval process, said Grybowski.

After making landfall the cable would have to travel an additional 10 miles over land to a substation. The land area through which it would have to travel is a historic settlement of the Narragansett Indian tribe and that could result in significant costs for the project if Native American artifacts were unearthed.

For these reasons, said Grybowski, Deepwater decided to route its cable into Narragansett Bay, where there were fewer technical and regulatory issues. Moore further stated that the company has “every incentive” to keep the cost of the cable to a minimum. National Grid is not compelled by law to purchase the cable and can opt out if it deems the costs too excessive, he said.

EUTG member Everett Shorey summed up the Deepwater presentation, saying that the Charlestown landing site was “never really an option,” and continued to say that “the notion that there is a $20 million option is just wrong.”

Deepwater says it will be completing its survey work in time to submit permit applications by the first quarter of 2012. Moore said that they hope to release a bid request for the transmission cable by second quarter of 2012.

Distribution upgrade

An application for a proposed upgrade of the Block Island Power Company distribution system has been stalled at the Public Utilities Commission for over a year. The EUTG discussed whether to recommend that the Town Council urge the PUC to reopen its docket.

A system upgrade would reduce line loss — power lost between the power station and homes — by increasing the lines’ capacity from 2400 volts to 4160 volts. No one can say definitively how big the power savings would be. It would also help alleviate power surges that disrupt electrical appliances on the island. The savings from the upgrade would largely come from the reduction in line loss.

A conservative estimate of a 5-percent reduction in line loss would save ratepayers around 1.5 cents per kWh at current fuel prices and .5 cents per kWh at mainland fuel prices. The entire upgrade would have a 79-year payback, according to BIPCo’s filing with the PUC, and cost ratepayers 2.5 cents per kWh.

BIPCo CEO Cliff McGinnes Sr. suggested that the town wait until a mainland cable is installed to push for a system upgrade. McGinnes said that the increased costs for the distribution improvements would be mitigated by the lower cost of mainland power, and would reduce the burden on ratepayers.

EUTG member Shorey disagreed, saying that the greatest savings to be had occurred while the fuel charge was at its highest. He said that by waiting, ratepayers would be forfeiting the greater savings they could be generating while the island still depends on diesel fuel.

Town Manager Nancy Dodge suggested that it should be left up to the ratepayers to decide how they want to proceed, saying, “It’s not fair to make this decision in isolation. We need to ask the community if they want this now.”

Dodge asked McGinnes whether the BIPCo Board of Trustees would consider sitting down in an open meeting, without lawyers, to discuss the system upgrade. McGinnes replied that he could not speak for the board, but promised to pose the question at its next meeting.

“I want it to be known that I think 4160 is the right thing to do for the island,” said McGinnes. “Whether that is financially feasible is up to the accountants.”