Jules Verne's Grid?


With undersea cable linking Canada to Manhattan, Project Neptune could remake the transmission biz.

Fortnightly Magazine - February 15 2001

Fire up your web browser and log on to your friendly neighborhood ISO. You'll be amazed what you can find.

Take New England, for example. When you open up the site for the Independent System Operator (ISO), look for the link marked "Transmission." Click on "New Interconnections." Then "Interconnection Study Status." Scroll on down till you see "Neptune HVDC Cable Project" in the second column. Your first tip off will come when you see column three, which lists project capacity at 4800 megawatts-about to times the capacity of the typical project shown in the queue. Something is clearly going on. Then skip over several columns to the right, where you'll see the project described as "Maine/Maritimes to Boston Area and CT South Shore."

You have found Project Neptune, a proposal to build a high-voltage (direct current) merchant electric transmission line that would run along the New England coast, under the Atlantic Ocean, from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and/or Maine, to landfalls in Boston, Connecticut, New York City, and New Jersey.

Hello private enterprise, goodbye ISO rigamarole. Amid all the hand wringing over blackouts in California, and whether they might spread to the East Coast, here is somebody who is actually doing something. With a planned completion date of first quarter 2004, Neptune could change the way the game is played-if the developers can pull it off.

"I DON'T GIVE IT A LOT OF CREDENCE," says José Rotger, manager for regulatory strategy at TransEnergie Ltd., the transmission subsidiary of HyrdoQuebec. In fact, TransEnergie made news a while back with its own underwater merchant DC line project—across Long Island Sound from Connecticut to New York—which is now in the permitting stage after winning OK's from the New York and New England ISO's. After I saw the Web listing for Neptune, I had called TransEnergie, assuming they must be involved. I was wrong.

"It's somewhat of a mystery to me as well," said Rotger. "Every time I ask a question, I hear something different." When I inquired further, Rotger referred me to the New York ISO Web site. There you find "Project Neptune" listed in queue priority number 34, as a 1200-megawatt line running from Connecticut to ConEd in Brooklyn. I also found a "scope of work" study for Neptune, prepared by ABB Power T&D Co. Inc., and talked to Don Martin, the author.

"We'll have 600 MW per circuit [two] into New York," he told me, "with a fair number of circuits possibly leading out of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, to drop off power perhaps in Boston, New York, New Jersey, and southern Connecticut."

In their cryptic 12-page scoping study, ABB describes the New York segment as a "1200-MW bipole" terminating at the "Farragut and/or Rainey" nodes, but gives an alternative option that would send just one 600-MW pole to those two nodes, with the other 600-MW pole going straight to ConEd's 49th Street Manhattan substation through a new 345-kV cable, presumably a traditional line with alternating current.

The study adds that "alternatives are being developed to bring power from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, or northern Maine to New York by HVDC cable." It describes a final, yet to be completed study that will represent effects on the "entire" northeastern U.S. bulk power system, focusing on the New York, New England, and PJM interconnections, south and east of Utica, New York.

So who is putting this deal together?

"WE'RE A GROUP OF VERY COMPATIBLE COMPANIES," said Chuck Hewett, CEO of Atlantic Energy Partners, LLC, the sponsor for Project Neptune. "We're the kind of Yankee folks who'd rather work quietly behind the scenes and then be judged by our actions."

According to Hewett, the philosophy of the project is to interconnect the major load centers in New England, New York, and PJM, which are "having a hard time" solving their load problems with transmission solutions.

"There is cost-effective energy," adds Hewett. "Natural gas is available more cheaply in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. We can send gas by wire from the Maritimes to the northeast United States. To the extent we're displacing generation, it's likely to be older, oil-fired generation in the cities. But also, we also see substantial opportunities with existing capacity. Maine has winter peaks, while Boston, Connecticut, New York, and the Jersey shore are summer peaking."

Hewett told me that last summer, Goldman Sachs "did a very interesting piece" on the availability of gas on the continental shelf off the Maritime Provinces. "We're optimistic that this could make sense on both ends," said Hewett. "And it might mitigate the need for additional pipeline as well, to get the energy to the downtown areas where it is needed.

"We see this as a positive story. Using a DC line avoids problems. We've tried to route the line underwater to avoid critical fishing areas. We don't have to go through peoples' backyards."