Eversource, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission urge US to keep power corridor as narrow as possible in upgrade project | Local News

Eversource and Berkshire Regional Planning Commission say the U.S. Department of Energy’s plan to strengthen the so-called “brittle seam” corridor that connects New York’s and New England’s power supplies through Berkshire County is needed, but it doesn’t have to be as wide as it says.

The Department of Energy is eyeing the Berkshires as a place to strengthen the grid

Thomas Matuszko, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, wants the Department of Energy to explain why it says the power transmission improvement project would need a wider right of way than currently exists: The federal agency’s plan allows for up to a half-mile on either side of the existing overhead transmission lines. He’s advising the right of way corridor should be kept as narrow as possible. 

The Department of Energy calls it a “starting point.”

Meanwhile, Eversource, the electric utility that would carry out the project, is indicating that the DOE’s call for a mile-wide right of way is unnecessary. The utility told the Energy Department that it doesn’t need that room to upgrade the transmission system.

This aspect of the Department of Energy’s proposal is not final and might be considered an envelope rather than a defined route. Still, it is worrisome for the potential public alarm and concern it could create. So Eversource and the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission are advising the Department of Energy to narrow it and eliminate any cause for alarm.

Eversource and Berkshire Regional Planning each have submitted feedback on the Department of Energy’s National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors plan to boost the power transmission for otherwise “weak” stretches that connect electric grids throughout the country. There are 10 identified across the country and Berkshire County is part of one.

These particular corridors — we see them as the massive overhead power lines over hills and dales in the terrain — are structurally weak and in need of upgrade. One industry lawyer called these the “brittle seams” within the patchwork that is the nation’s electrical grid. These result in higher electricity costs, and the infrastructure is vulnerable to more and longer power outages.

The national interest designation, if awarded, will unlock $4.5 billion in federal aid and has the potential to unlock the power of federal eminent domain under certain circumstances.

Locally, the 60-mile route from Stephentown, N.Y., to Northfield links the New York and New England power supplies via the overhead power transmission lines. The Berkshire County stretch runs at least 21.25 miles from Hancock’s border with New York east to Windsor. The existing right of way along this route is between 200 and 330 feet wide, according to Eversource.

The Department of Energy has proposed it widen to a mile, if need be in order to add another a major transmission line. 

That’s simply not necessary, according to Eversource.

Eversource’s input for the plan called the widening “both unnecessary for the development of a transmission project in Eversource’s [right of way] and concerning for the host communities.”

According to Eversource, “the existing right-of-way in Massachusetts is several hundred feet wide, with sufficient scope and size to accommodate a new 345kV transmission project.”

Further, Eversource recommended the DOE “narrow the corridor width to the existing overhead transmission [right of way] and transportation corridor” and “clarify the reduced corridor width to the public.”

In addition, the utility wrote, “Community acceptance is critical for any interregional infrastructure project and narrowing the width of the corridor will go a long way in assuaging community concerns.”

Eversource spokeswoman Priscilla Ress said the company recommended this particular link for the national interest designation.

“Other than the mile-wide issue, the information contained in DOE’s preliminary potential listing was based on our filing,” she wrote The Eagle.

Were a mile-wide right of way to go into effect throughout the route, it would affect developed, protected and agricultural land, along with various water supplies. It would impact 905 buildings, ranging from just one in Peru to 323 in Lanesborough, and 832 parcels of land totaling 13,546.23 acres, including endangered species habitat, according to Berkshire Regional Planning Commission’s analysis.

Eversource has delivered a more pointed message to the Berkshire County towns along the route by reiterating and expanding on the comments it sent the Energy Department.

On June 21, Aimee Henderson, Eversource community relations specialist, emailed the following to a Berkshire County town administrator along the affected route: “Eversource does not intend to widen the existing right of way, or impact abutters through eminent domain,” Henderson wrote. “We have never characterized this corridor as a mile wide and intend to clarify it with the DOE. Eversource believes that a majority of the existing corridor within our current easement rights can accommodate a new transmission line that could provide significant benefits to Massachusetts and New England customers.”

In addition, Henderson wrote, “Eversource does not have any plans to pursue Federal Backstop Siting Authority for any project it may propose in the corridor.” Federal Backstop Siting Authority refers to the use of federal eminent domain.

Pauline Banducci, Berkshire media manager for Citizens Climate Lobby, also filed comments.

“The idea of having 1 mile swath in the area where there are houses is NOT necessary,” Banducci wrote. “Those individuals will not be able to move to another house because Berkshire County is so expensive. Their homes will not receive the real estate value necessary for them to relocate! What about an 800 foot swath.”

Banducci advocated for siting and building clean energy projects and involving local residents. 

Prior to filing Berkshire Regional Planning Commission’s 40-page comment, Matuszko spoke with a representative from the Energy Department who told him that the New York-New England link was the narrowest of the 10 proposed corridors, being three-tenths of a mile wide. The widest is 100 miles.

Variations in width and length are “due to the nature of the locations, population centers, land status, complexity associated with conducting meaningful on-the-ground surveys, physical and natural impacts, as well as transmission needs, including accounting for existing infrastructure,” according to the Department of Energy’s answers to frequently asked questions about National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors.

If demand reaches a projected 23,750 megawatts on Thursday, that would top the peak load reached on Sept. 7, 2023, of about 23,500 megawatts. A megawatt provides electricity for about 1,000 homes.

Noting the high price of electricity to commercial and residential customers, Matuszko said he understands the need to build capacity along the transmission lines and sees the benefits to Berkshire County.

“It’s a necessary fix if we want to decarbonize,” he said.

In his comments to the DOE, Matuszko also spoke of the need to balance the need for cheaper and reliable electricity with other economic goals, noting the county’s reliance on its natural landscape.

He named 12 “notable areas of interest within the corridor which should be given special attention” in Berkshire County. Among them are the Pittsfield and Dalton watersheds, Holiday Brook Farm in Dalton, the Pittsfield State Forest in Hancock and Lanesborough, as well as public and private protected lands.

“The Town of Windsor serves as the headwaters of the congressionally designated Wild and Scenic Westfield River,” Matuszko wrote. “The Appalachian National Scenic Trail is in the towns of Hinsdale, Dalton and Cheshire. Impacts to these two nationally significant outdoor recreational assets must be minimized.”

Noting that much of the land in the corridor is forested, Matuszko also spoke to the importance of forests in addressing climate change.

The Regional Planning Commission’s input to the DOE delved deeply into the impact that a fully mile-wide right of way would have on Berkshire County.

“I really don’t want to create hysteria at this point,” he told The Eagle.

Noting that this is a public process and that the next phase includes public engagement, Matuszko recommended that the DOE meet with select boards of each affected town.

He also offered advice to the eight potentially affected towns as the designation process enters its third phase, which entails public engagement.

“I recommend that the towns and the town officials pay attention to how this proceeds,” Matuszko said.

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