Eversource is proposing to spend $384 million to rebuild an existing transmission line in northwest New Hampshire. It wants to outfit the rebuilt line with technology that is half a century old.

Remember the Old Man of the Mountain, New Hampshire’s famous granite icon and state emblem? It crumbled to its fate some 21 years ago but still lives on in the heart and soul of New Hampshire—and on its license plates and road signs. While the Old Man is a memory, a nearby aging transmission line is about to be rebuilt to standards last seen when the Old Man was still presiding over the White Mountain scenery.

What does this have to do with regional electric grid? Last month’s Spotlight  posed a question: if the amount of electricity needed to serve the region’s needs will double by 2050, will the 9,000 miles of transmission lines that carry the regions’ electricity have to be doubled as well? The answer that was given to the question can be summed up in a single word: perhaps.

There are strategies to “right size” improvements to transmission in existing rights of way to wring as much capacity as possible out of the lines we already have, and to optimize the construction of new transmission to further augment the regional grid, to serve future loads. Fortunately, there is plenty of transmission capacity in existing rights of way that is ripe for the picking. Unfortunately, however, it is not being picked.

Eversource’s proposal to rebuild the existing New Hampshire transmission line—identified nondescriptly as X-178— provides a perfect illustration of how money is being spent on old technology that fails to increase transmission capacity in existing rights of way.

The X-178 transmission line is 49 miles long and traverses one of New England’s most prized landscapes. Twelve of its 49 miles cut through the White Mountain National Forest, crossing the Appalachian Trail along the way. The proposed reconstruction of X-178 is an “asset condition project” (ACP): a project to repair, replace, or upgrade an existing high-voltage transmission line. In many respects, X-178 is representative of New England’s aging transmission network. Built in three phases–the first in 1948 and the most recent in 1985—X-178 is now solidly middle-aged. A number of its structures have been replaced over time, so their average age is 45 years. X-178 is typical of New England transmission lines in another respect: it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to site X-178 along its current route today if it were being proposed as a new line. But it is already there, its condition is degraded, and according to its owner Eversource, it requires replacement.

The task of rebuilding X-178 is daunting, and eye-wateringly expensive. There are no fewer than 594 structures, and Eversource seeks to replace 98% of them. Eversource estimates that the X-178 ACP will cost $384.6 million, a price-tag that would, of course, eventually be borne by ratepayers throughout the region.

Dated Technology, Lost Opportunity

The problem with the X-178 project isn’t what it includes. Rather, the problem is what the project scope fails to include—relatively inexpensive measures that have the potential to significantly increase the capacity of the line—specifically, high-performance advanced conductors, and sensors to support additional advanced transmission technologies such as dynamic line ratings, power flow control, and topology optimization—all of which can optimize the efficiency and reliability of the grid.

The X-178 project would replace 49 circuit miles of existing conductor with aluminum conductor, steel supported (ACSS) conductor and replace existing shield wire with two 49-mile runs of optical ground wire. The ACSS replacement conductor Eversource has proposed installing is fifty-year old technology and would leave X-178’s capacity practically unchanged. Advanced conductors, on the other hand, can be installed on existing structures and can as much as double the power density of existing lines.

By comparison, the Texas utility AEP made the decision to install advanced conductors on 240 miles of transmission lines to avoid the time and expense of building new transmission. The AEP project took less than three years to complete and increased the capacity of the transmission in the existing right of way by 40%. Notably, AEP’s project was completed thirteen years ago. And the optical ground wire Eversource wants to install on the rebuilt X-178? Some advanced conductors incorporate optical ground wire directly, making separate installations of optical ground wire unnecessary.

X-178 is emblematic of ACPs throughout the New England region. If X-178 is approved as-is it will represent a significant and expensive missed opportunity. That is because, if future demand requires additional capacity in the vicinity of X-178, there will only be two alternatives: implement another, future X-178 ACP to install the measures that could be installed this time around or build new transmission. It is equivalent to doing a gut-rehab home renovation and failing to increase your electric service to future-proof it to accommodate the eventual purchase of an electric vehicle, heat pump, and an induction stove.

Today, ACPs account for the bulk of the region’s transmission spending: in 2016 annual spending on ACPs equaled $58 million. Between 2016-2023, $2.8 billion of ACPs were implemented (or an average of $350 million/year). Currently, $5 billion in ACPs are planned or have been proposed. And concerningly, last year, annual spending on ACPs rose to $800 million.

Who’s On First?

ISO New England operates but does not own the region’s transmission system. Ask transmission owners like Eversource why they don’t “right size” ACPs—configure them so that they anticipate and will be able to move the amounts of power that will be needed to meet future demand—and they will tell you that there is nothing in ISO New England’s Open Access Transmission Tariff (OATT) that describes a process for doing so, which is true. Ask ISO New England why the OATT doesn’t contain specific recommendations or requirements for developing ACPs, and they will tell you that they have no jurisdiction over that portion of the OATT, which is also true.

Who is left then to advocate for changes to the OATT that would ensure that ACPs follow a specified process to develop cost-effective solutions not just for the present but also for the future? So far, the six New England states – but concerned municipalities can and should lend their voices to the push too. Last year the New England States Committee on Electricity (NESCOE) wrote a letter to the region’s transmission owners to “suggest process enhancements to improve the transparency, predictability, and cost discipline of Asset Condition Projects in the nearest term, and to enable the region to better incorporate them into holistic transmission planning to allow consumers, and the system, to realize their full benefits.”

Guidelines for presenting ACPs to ISO New England’s Planning Advisory Committee (PAC), which were developed by the region’s transmission owners, recommend that projects with an estimated cost exceeding $50 million be presented to the PAC at least six months prior to start of major construction, while projects less than $50 million be presented to the PAC at least three months prior to the commencement of construction.

Let’s repeat that: currently proposed ACPs, aggregating $5 billion, are subject to a review that is as brief as three to six months. Moreover, that review does not require that ACPs be “right sized.” Who says transmission projects can’t receive swift approval? It’s just that it’s the wrong type of insufficiently optimized—transmission upgrades that are swiftly approved under the current paradigm.

Consumers Deserve Better

The policy choices we make today will determine how many miles of new transmission will need to be built in the future. Because it is often difficult to site new transmission—it traverses prized landscapes and privately owned parcels and impacts communities—and because the expense of building new transmission is measured in the billions of dollars, the obvious goal should be to get as much as possible out of our existing grid and rights-of-way before, and in parallel with, building new transmission lines.

New transmission will be needed to meet New England’s future electricity demand. But what is needed first, to bootstrap the buildout of regional transmission capacity, bring new sources of renewable energy onto the grid, and optimize the efficiency of the grid and enhance its reliability, are upgrades to transmission in existing rights of way that utilize advanced transmission technologies like advanced conductors and other grid-enhancing technologies. Today, New England is failing to right size asset condition projects like X-178, and that failure leaves ratepayers in jeopardy of over-paying for the new transmission build-out we need, and failing to minimize the cost of transmission, both new and existing.

Around the Region

Mar 15 – Concord, several area towns agree to launch community power Concord and several area towns are getting on the community power bandwagon. Concord Monitor

Apr. 4 – The end of the coal era, the beginning of a cleaner era The final plant closures in New England will bring us that much closer to a critical goal: the closure of all the coal plants in the United States by 2030. The Boston Globe

Apr. 8 – More than 10K sign statewide petitions opposing Eversource rate hikes in Connecticut. More than 10,000 people throughout the state have signed two petitions opposing Eversource’s proposed 19-percent rate hike. CT Insider

Apr. 11 – Extreme N.H. weather is caused by climate change — and it’s here to stay Swings from extreme heat to extreme cold aren’t going anywhere, according to the state’s climatologist. The Boston Globe

Apr. 17  –Maine House backs environmental exemption to allow wind terminal on Sears Island A dozen House members reversed themselves from an April 9 vote that rejected changes in environmental rules, in order to allow an offshore wind terminal to be built. Lewiston Sun Journal

Apr. 17 – Maine joins regional efforts to secure $1 billion for clean energy projects Federal infrastructure money is up for grabs as the region pursues clean energy transmission and battery storage projects. Lewiston Sun Journal

Apr. 18 – Eversource seeks cost recovery from PURA in providing EV charging rebates Eversource cited an “unpredictable [Connecticut] regulatory environment” with a concern for how deferred program costs continue to build up. Fox 61

Apr. 22 – Environmentalists sue Maine over alleged failure to act on climate change Three environmental groups have sued Maine over allegedly failing to act on climate change. Bangor Daily News

Apr. 29 – New report shows striking increase in weather-related power outages in Maine As more outages occur because of bad weather, a federal grant may help the grid better contain disruptions.


The End User

NOTE: NEPOOL meetings are not public and are open only to all NEPOOL Participants, their authorized representatives and, except as otherwise limited for discussions in executive session, consumer advocates, federal and state officials and guests whose attendance has been cleared with the Committee Chair or Vice-Chair. All ISO New England Meetings are open to the public. Meeting Agendas and other meeting materials for both NEPOOL and Iso New England meetings are publicly available at the linked pages.

May 1 – ISO New England 2050 Transmission Study webinar: Registration and recording

May 2 – NEPOOL Participants Committee Meeting: Agenda

May 3 – NEPOOL Interregional Planning Stakeholder Advisory Committee Meeting: Agenda

May 7 – NEPOOL Markets Committee Meeting: Agenda

May 8 – NEPOOL Markets Committee Meeting: Agenda

May 10 – NEPOOL Budget and Finance Subcommittee: Agenda

May 13 – NEPOOL Membership Subcommittee Meeting: Agenda

May 14 – NEPOOL Reliability Committee Meeting: Agenda

May 15 – ISO New England Planning Advisory Committee Meeting: Agenda

May 16 – NEPOOL Transmission Committee Meeting: Agenda

May 23 – ISO New England Environment Advisory Group Meeting: Agenda


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