State has major power grid upgrade plan in the works

New York’s aging electric power grid is struggling to keep up with the demands of modern life, from

Categories: Schenectady County

New York’s aging electric power grid is struggling to keep up with the demands of modern life, from purifying the air in computer chip plants to recharging our smart phones.

The state is planning for major improvements to the grid, the system of utility-owned high-voltage transmission lines that stretches across the state to supply thousands of businesses and millions of homes.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has named a new Energy Highway Task Force to develop a plan. He compared an upgrade’s importance for future job growth to the creation of the interstate highway system in the 1950s. He termed it “Key to powering our economic growth is expanding our energy infrastructure,” in his State of the State speech in January.

New York has enough generating plants. The problem is that electricity made at huge facilities on the Niagara Frontier or in

the St. Lawrence region must travel hundreds of miles to reach where it’s most needed — but there aren’t enough transmission lines to do that efficiently.

“We have wind farms around the lakes and in the Adirondacks that need to get power to consumers to make money,” said Gordon Boyd of EnergyNext, a Saratoga Springs energy consulting firm.

The state needs to get more power to New York City and Long Island, Cuomo said, where there’s the most need and consumers currently pay the most. In its initial documents, the Energy Highway Task Force focuses on New York City and Long Island.

Regional bottleneck

But there’s an identified shortage of power coming into the Capital Region, too — a bottleneck that raises the region’s electric bills.

“There’s no mention of the Capital Region as a place with congestion pricing that’s impeding the economy, and it is,” said Boyd, whose firm manages group buying programs for chambers of commerce and municipalities.

What’s called congestion pricing happens when limits on transmission capacity prevent cheaper electricity produced elsewhere from getting into an area that needs it, according to the New York Independent System Operator, the utility-owned nonprofit that manages the state’s power needs.

Utility experts say it’s a recognized problem for the Capital Region.

“The segments of the transmission system from Utica to the Capital Region and then moving south from the Capital Region to the Hudson Valley and New York City have been congestion points on the system for many years,” said David C. Flanagan, a spokesman for the Independent System Operator. NYISO will be serving as an independent technical adviser to the task force, Flanagan said. The goal of the plan is to lower energy prices by addressing the bottlenecks, allowing cheaper power to get to where demand is highest.

But increased line capacity between upstate and downstate could also aid Cuomo with his long-held argument that the Indian Point nuclear plant in Westchester County should be shut down.

Measures on the table with the Energy Highway plan could include rehabilitating old power plants and building new ones, installing new equipment on aging high-voltage transmission lines, and constructing new power lines. Cuomo estimates the cost at $2 billion, but he expects those costs to be borne privately.

How the grid works

The plan would be one of the first statewide looks at how the state’s power grid fits together, with supply in some parts of the state and demand in others.

The grid is composed of a patchwork of independently owned power plants linked to regional utilities like National Grid and New York State Electric and Gas that buy power from those plants and deliver it to homes, farms and factories. The utilities generally own the transmission lines.

The high-voltage lines link the rest of the state to large hydroelectric facilities in western and northern New York, and to smaller hydro plants, wind farms and gas-fired, coal-fired and nuclear power plants. Most of the transmission system is at least a half-century old, and showing its age. It is also interlinked with the power grids in Quebec, Ontario and surrounding states.

Blackouts that started in other places and spread across the entire Northeast in 1965 and 2003 showed some of the weaknesses of the interlinked system, but state officials say upgrades wouldn’t just improve reliability, but lower consumer costs as well.

Congestion pricing costs Capital Region consumers an extra $100 million per year, Boyd estimates.

“The general premises of the plan are correct. There are congestion costs being paid by residents of New York,” Boyd said.

The only major transmission project currently under consideration in the state is the Champlain-Hudson Power Express, which would provide 1,000 megawatts of Canadian power to New York City. Its line would run underground through the heart of the Capital Region, but won’t provide any additional power here. It is currently under federal and state regulatory review.

Demand growing

Without new power lines, the imbalances in the state’s power distribution system are expected to get worse. Statewide electricity use is growing year by year.

The current one-day demand record of 33,454 megawatts was set last July, in the middle of a heat wave that had air conditioners running across the state. That record could fall if this proves to be another hot summer.

NYISO, which updates its demand projections every two years, is predicting slow but steady growth in the state’s electric demand for the foreseeable future.

Access to reliable and inexpensive power is also essential to attracting new businesses to the state, Cuomo has argued.

“If we want to truly make New York state open for the businesses of tomorrow, we cannot rely on the power supply of yesterday,” Cuomo said in a recent statement.

Indeed, new manufacturing businesses can put enormous demand on the power grid.

The GlobalFoundries computer chip plant in Malta, for instance, is going to use as much electricity as a city the size of Saratoga Springs. Its $4.6 billion factory is a prime reason National Grid is building a new $66 million high-voltage power line between its Rotterdam substation, the Spier Falls hydroelectric dam in Moreau, and Ballston Spa.

But that project has been in the works for several years. The follow-up on Cuomo’s initiative is just starting.

Ideas sought

The task force earlier this month issued a formal request for information, asking private utilities and energy developers to submit their ideas for improving the state’s power infrastructure. Their responses are due by May 30.

The task force, which held a meeting for proposers Thursday in Tarrytown, seeks ideas for new generation and transmission projects, including information on financing, construction and operation. Parties are asked to identify project benefits as well as what challenges they would face — though there’s no promise of state help with meeting those challenges.

So far, the idea of upgrading the grid hasn’t provoked controversy. Even the New York League of Conservation Voters supporters the idea, saying it will benefit “green” power providers.

But new overhead power lines and large power plants often spark controversy, with concerns about their visual impact and the possible health effects of electromagnetic radiation. Task force documents make clear that new infrastructure will still require years of environmental and permit reviews.

The task force has yet to identify specific transmission routes or power plant locations, and it’s usually specific projects that provoke public opposition.

The task force is being co-chaired by Gil C. Quiniones, president of the New York Power Authority, and Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joseph C. Martens.

Others on the task force are Kenneth Adams, state commissioner of economic development; Garry A. Brown, chairman of the state Public Service Commission; and Francis J. Murray, president of the state Energy Research and Development Authority.

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