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Underwater Cable May Ease Electric Shortages


We turn now to one of this administration's less talked about initiatives: the smart electrical grid, which is supposed to open the way for new sources of green energy. Among the hurdles is how to link big cities with renewable sources, which tend to be in rural areas, though one Canadian company has unveiled a multibillion dollar plan to feed power from huge hydro dams in Canada to New York City and Connecticut.

North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports the twist is all those electric cables will be hidden underwater.

BRIAN MANN: A ferry sets out across Lake Champlain, a big slate-gray wedge of water that runs between Upstate New York and Vermont. This has been a shipping lane for hundreds of years, feeding iron and timber south to New York City. Now a Toronto company called TDI wants to use the lake and the Hudson River as a new kind of superhighway - not for cargo, but to feed electricity to the northeastern U.S.

Donald Jessome is TDI's president.

Mr. DONALD JESSOME (President, TDI): You'll have four cables coming down Lake Champlain into the Hudson directly into New York City, and then two of the cables continue on over to southwest Connecticut.

MANN: The cables will be buried under the sediment, carrying about 2,000 megawatts of power from hydro dams in Canada. That's about the equivalent of two nuclear power plants.

Mr. JESSOME: Literally, once this cable's buried under the waterways, it's essentially maintenance-free.

MANN: Buying all that green power from Canada could help northeastern states hit carbon-reduction goals. The new cable could also help prevent grid failures, like the massive blackout in 2003 that affected eight states.

Andrew Phillips is a scientist with the Electric Power Research Institute, an industry group with no ties to the TDI project. He says a big advantage of this approach is that it avoids running new power corridors through forests and communities.

Dr. ANDREW PHILLIPS (Electric Power Research Institute): Getting rights of way is a large challenge for anybody running any power line across the United States or anywhere in the world, actually, today.

MANN: TDI uses a kind of direct current cable technology that's more efficient, Phillips says, at carrying electricity long distances. This would be one of the longest, most complicated underwater transmission lines ever attempted.

Dr. PHILLIPS: Three-hundred-and-eighty miles of cable is an enormous length. Nothing even close to that length has been done in the United States, if not worldwide.

MANN: According to TDI, the technology for laying the cable has already been tested. A video on the company's Web site shows the line being buried under the sediment, using remote submersibles.

(Soundbite of TDI video)

Unidentified Man: If a major obstacle is encountered, the cable guidance system navigates the best cable path, using sonar and cameras.

MANN: If the engineering is tricky, the project will also have to navigate one of the most historic waterways in the country, with more than 300 shipwrecks in Lake Champlain alone.

Mr. ADAM KANE (Nautical Archeologist, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum): They date from the 1700s of the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812...

MANN: Adam Kane is an archeologist with the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, which has been hired by TDI to help research a route that won't get tangled up in all that history.

Mr. KANE: There's also going to be a series of archeological surveys that will make sure that there aren't any sites that do we don't yet know about that are impacted.

MANN: The project is also drawing scrutiny from environmental groups. A much smaller cable project built across Long Island Sound in 2002 drew fire from activists worried about damage to shellfish beds.

Leah Schmalz is with the Connecticut-based group called Save the Sound.

Ms. LEAH SCHMALZ (Save the Sound): Most of the projects that have traversed Long Island Sound have been having a tough time complying with their permits in the end. So concerns from habitat destruction, permit compliance seem to be pretty strong.

MANN: TDI has already begun the permitting process with state and federal regulators. The company hopes to begin construction in Lake Champlain in 2012, with all that power flowing underwater by 2014.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.
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