But NYC needs power to replace Indian Point’s nuclear energy without resorting to new fossil-fuel usage.
The last Indian Point reactor is set to shut down next April.
While the closure of Indian Point will help the city move towards its goal of relying solely on clean, renewable energy sources over the long run, in the near-term it could cause New York City’s dependence on fossil fuels to rise from the 67 percent it was in 2018 to 86 percent in 2022.
In order to make up for the lost energy due to the closure of the nuclear power plant and to move away from using fossil fuels, New York City has been negotiating contracts with various clean energy projects to help the city meet its energy demands. On average, the city uses 140,000 megawatt hours a day.
One project currently under negotiation is the Champlain Hudson Power Express (CHPE) transmission line, which is expected to deliver 24,000 megawatt hours of hydropower daily to New York through a transmission line that runs from Québec, Canada to the city.
Daniel Zarrilli, the OneNYC director and chief climate policy adviser for the Office of the Mayor, says the Québec project is part of the city’s commitment to transition into relying on clean and renewable power. The transmission line, Zarrilli says, will also work towards improving the quality of communities that have suffered from air pollution and environmental injustice for decades due to the use of fossil fuels to power the city.
“Indian Point just put even more emphasis on the need to secure the kind of clean electricity that we need like hydro, more offshore wind, that’s going to get us out of this fossil-fueled reality that we live in right now,” he tells City Limits.
However, advocacy groups like Riverkeeper and the North American Megadam Resistance Alliance, are calling for the city to scrap the project because of concerns about the environmental impacts of the transmission line. The opponents are worried about the potential creation of new dams in Québec to power the project, as well as the impact of the transmission line cable that will be burrowed into the Hudson River’s riverbed.
A decade in the making
The Champlain Hudson Power Express project was first proposed by Transmission Developers Inc., a private company and subsidiary of The Blackstone Group, back in 2010 as a way to bring a surplus of hydroelectricity from Canada into New York City. Then in 2019, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that as part of the city’s Green New Deal, his administration would negotiate a contract for the Canadian hydropower in order to help the city move away from fossil fuels.
Even more recently, the project got a nod of approval from Governor Andrew Cuomo when he announced, during one of his daily coronavirus briefings back in May, that he was going to expedite the project in order to help bring more renewable energy to the city.
“We know they have low-cost hydropower in Canada,” said Cuomo. “Let’s run the cable, the transmission line from Canada to New York City to get that power down here and let’s stop talking and let’s start doing.”
The project will be created and maintained by both Hydro-Québec, a Canadian state-owned company whose sole shareholder is the Government of Québec, and Transmission Developers Inc. Hydro Québec will supply the power from their dams and Transmission Developers will install the transmission line.
The transmission line cables will run for 333 miles from the U.S-Canadian border all the way to a converter station that will be built at the ConEdison power plant site in Astoria, Queens. The transmission line will be built both underground and underwater, with the line being embedded into the riverbeds in Canada’s Lake Champlain and New York’s Hudson River.
The transmission line holds up to 1,000 megawatts at a time, which is enough energy to power one million homes.
The project has already acquired the permits needed to start construction from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S Department of Energy and the State of New York. Construction on the project is expected to start in 2021, with the line being fully operational by the end of 2025.
The expected cost for the project is around $3 billion. Though the city is still looking into various forms of payments, in 2019 officials confirmed that they are looking into the possibility of the city fully financing the transmission line. This means that the city will issue bonds—either general obligation bonds or bonds through its Transitional Finance Authority—to pay for the project. Over the term of the bonds, the city will pay the principal and interest to the bond holders as part of the debt service category in the city’s operating budget. For capital projects, bond debt is usually paid off over a maximum period of 30 years, with the interest rate being around 3 percent.
Worried about sediments
Citing concerns over the potential creation of new dams in order to provide enough power to New York City, Riverkeeper, an organization dedicated to protecting the Hudson River, released a statement in 2019 withdrawing their previous support for the transmission line project. The withdrawal came six and a half years after Riverkeeper had first announced that they would not oppose it.
John Lipscomb, Riverkeeper’s vice president for advocacy, says the potential creation of new dams is one concern. Another is the impact the construction of the transmission line will have on the Hudson River’s ecosystem. Lipscomb says that by running the line through the Hudson the developers will be posing an environmental threat to a delicate river—one that has grown cleaner in recent years thanks to years of advocacy, regulation and lawsuits—in the name of human development.
“So, what we’ve done now is in order to solve a New York City electric problem, we are blatantly throwing the river under the bus again,” says Lipscomb. “We’re sacrificing the river again.”
The concern is that embedding the line into the riverbed will disturb the sediment, which has been contaminated due to legacy pollution.
Jennifer Laird-White, vice president of external affairs at Transmission Developers, Inc. says via email that the sediment has been tested along the project’s route. The route has been altered to take the line out from underwater in areas that had shown signs of contamination, in order to protect the environment. Laird-White says the company had worked closely with the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the federal Environmental Protection Agency during the route-planning process.
The method used to embed the line is the least disruptive measure the engineers could use, Laird-White says. “Within the Hudson River, the cable will primarily be installed utilizing commonly used, low-impact water-jet technology that minimally impacts the environment.”
However, Lipscomb says that even with all the precautionary measures, the sediment they dig into could still contain harmful contaminants that would take years to settle back into the riverbed once again. And before the sediment settles, Lipscomb says, the benthic life in the river will be impacted, contaminating the river’s food web.
“The river will eventually cover those freshly deposited contaminants with new sediment, which is less contaminated, so the river will immediately try to heal slowly from that wound,” Lipscomb says. But until then, “It’s not a small wound, it’s a massive wound.”
Another concern, Lipscomb says, was that the electromagnetic fields (EMF) that the transmission line would emit could potentially have an impact on fish living within the river. The entire river, Lipscomb says, is critical for many species that are at perilously low population levels, like the Atlantic Sturgeon, which is a federally endangered species.
While research on the impact of EMF on fish and other aquatic life forms is still in its early stages, some studies have raised concerns that EMF can alter the migration routes of the fish in the area and even have an impact on the development of fish larvae. This impact, Lipscomb says, would not be noticeable in Atlantic Sturgeon until 20 years after the line has been in operation.
Laird-White says that the state permit concluded that the transmission line’s magnetic field would not have any significant impact on the fish within the river. However, Transmission Developers Inc. will be conducting studies prior to, during, and after the cable has been installed to monitor impacts, she says. The planned studies include sediment monitoring and hydrophone monitoring of the behavior of the Atlantic Sturgeon.
The transmission line plan also includes a $117 million Environmental Trust Fund to provide assistance to projects that improve and enhance the aquatic environments in Lake Champlain, the Hudson River, the Bronx, Harlem and East Rivers, and New York Harbor.
Dam if they do
The main thrust of Riverkeeper’s opposition to the project, says Paul Gallay, the organization’s president, was that it would potentially create a need for the creation of new dams later on.
The already existing dams, says Gallay, have had an impact on the indigenous communities living in the area that live on and rely on the land for their food, through methylmercury contamination.
Methylmercury results from trees and organic material being submerged in water, as part of the dam creation process. Once submerged, the vegetation releases a naturally occurring mercury into the water column which then converts it into methylmercury. The methylmercury then contaminates the river, the coastal food web, and accumulates in fish, birds, seals and other species that the indigenous communities rely on.
“There’s been study after study as to the impact on indigenous communities in the hunting and fishing grounds and the ecosystems associated with the areas where the dams are created,” says Gallay. “There are better ways of getting truly renewable, sustainable and green power.”
Meg Sheehan, a coordinator for the North American Megadams Resistance Alliance (NAMRA), says that methylmercury contamination prevents the communities from conducting their traditional hunting and fishing in order to survive. NAMRA is a coalition of organizations dedicated to protecting the rivers and indigenous communities impacted by megadams and transmission corridors.
“These communities are very remote and there’s a lot of food insecurity in the North,” says Sheehan. “They rely to this day on hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering, to get through the winter. You can talk to people about how the seal is critical for their diet, physically and spiritually and how this has been taken away from them by hydro, because of a methylmercury poisoning.”
Sheehan also referenced a 2016 study released by Harvard researchers which found that “over 90 percent of potential new Canadian hydroelectric projects are likely to increase concentrations of the neurotoxin methylmercury in food webs near indigenous communities.”
Gary Sutherland, director of strategic affairs in northeast markets for Hydro-Québec, says they have done 40 years of research on methylmercury and that the levels found will eventually decline until it returns to natural levels. Sutherland also says that while they cannot prevent the increased levels in the reservoirs, they are taking the necessary precautions to minimize the health risks and that the consumption of fish from one of the reservoirs, to Hydro-Québec’s knowledge, has not resulted in methylmercury poisoning.
“Hydro-Québec takes all necessary measures to minimize the risks to human health and to collaborate with the local public health institutions and Indigenous communities on safety measures,” says Sutherland. “Despite extensive follow-up studies, Hydro-Québec is not aware of any cases of mercury intoxication arising from consumption of fish from a reservoir.”
Lynn St-Laurent, a spokesperson for Hydro-Québec, says that the company views the indigenous communities as their business partners and have signed over 40 agreements with various indigenous communities making sure the communities get the benefits they want out of the deal. The benefits range from profit sharing, job training, jobs, cultural programs, financial compensations and other economic benefits.
St-Laurent also says that Hydro-Québec’s projects “always include mitigation measures to protect natural habitat paths, pursue traditional activities on these lands and the goal is to ensure that indigenous communities can continue making use of the territory.”
Zarrilli says New York City is prioritizing and making sure that the rights of the indigenous community are respected throughout this process, and that the city had previously sent a delegation to interact directly with the indigenous groups in Québec to understand their points of view on projects.
Demand and dams?
Riverkeeper’s withdrawal of their support also stems from the fact that in 2018, Hydro-Québec signed a similar supply contract with Massachusetts to provide 9.45 million megawatt hours of hydropower annually, as part of the New England Clean Energy Connect Transmission project (NECEC). Riverkeeper felt that this would increase the likelihood of Hydro-Québec proposing new dams to meet the combined power demand.
“We requested firm commitments from Hydro-Québec that no new dams would be constructed to meet potential future demand,” says Gallay. “The company could only respond by saying that they do not currently anticipate the need for more dams. But they were not willing to declare any kind of a moratorium of any length of time on new dams.”
Serge Abergel, a representative for Hydro-Québec, says that the company has no plans to create any new dams to help power New York City. Abergel says the company currently has enough power to serve the city.
In 2019 Hydro-Québec’s net electricity sales totaled 208.3 terawatt-hours, and their installed hydroelectric capacity is about 37,000 megawatts. Hydro-Québec also draws power from 62 generating stations located across Québec.
Abergel says that while they cannot promise that they will never create another dam for a different project, Hydro-Québec can promise that there will be no need for new dams to be built for the New York City transmission line project.
Zarrilli also says that while they do not believe a new dam will be needed, the city has made it clear during negotiations that they don’t want the transmission line to require the creation of additional dams. “We don’t think it will cause a new dam and we are standing firm and saying, we don’t want new dams to supply this because the power already exists.”
This July, as part of the NECEC project, Hydro-Québec also signed a deal to sell Maine 500,000 megawatt hours annually, fueling concerns that the increase in demand will result in new dams being constructed.
Why not alternatives?
Along with wanting to avoid using hydropower, some opponents to CHPE wanted the city to stick to using local renewable energy sources in order to foster more jobs for New Yorkers.
However, Laird-White says that Transmission Developers, Inc. has committed to the creation of more than 2,000 jobs across New York State and will utilize union and local labor for the project. The Laborers’ International Union of North America’s (LIUNA) lent their support to the project recently. “Members are ready to get to work on the Champlain Hudson Power Express Line next year,” says Armand E. Sabitoni, LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and New England Regional Manager. “It is a vital project that will help meet the energy needs of New Yorkers while creating good jobs with family-supporting pay and benefits.”
However, Gallay says the city has more than enough resources to utilize in state, clean and renewable energy sources that can be chosen over the transmission project.
“We can take care of our challenges with regard to renewable energy within New York State be self-sufficient, avoid the creation of the impacts in Canada that come with the creation of new dams and new impoundments and vastly, vastly exceed the amount of renewable energy that the CHPE project will provide.”
However, Zarrilli says the city is taking steps to make sure they acquire a multitude of different forms of renewable energy, whether it is in-state or out of state. “So, this is just one piece of the puzzle and it’s a complex and pretty varied puzzle that we’re trying to solve here. But the hydro fits in as one piece of that. And it’s, I think it’s wrong to think of it as we’ve chosen one over another. we’re choosing all the clean electricity we can get our hands on.”
Despite the pushback from various environmentalist groups, Zarrilli says contract negotiations for the transmission line are expected to be completed by the end of 2020.
Lipscomb says that despite Riverkeeper’s best efforts to oppose the line, he expects construction on the CHPE transmission line to start on time next year.
“I fully expect that this project will go forward. But we ought to not be kidding ourselves, what we’re doing here is we’re making the river once again take a hit for our convenience,” he says. “We need electricity for New York, Canadians want to sell electricity for their bottom line and the river is going to pay and subsidize both.”