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Broken Democracy Ruins Transmission Projects

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Henry Craver's picture
Small Business Owner Self-employed

As a small business owner, I'm always trying to find ways to cut costs and boost the dependability of my services. To that end, I've become increasingly invested in learning about energy saving...

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  • May 12, 2022

Along with life expectancy and vacation time, the U.S.A. trails nearly every other rich country in transmission development. Just consider this fact reported in an Atlantic article last year: “Since 2009, China has built more than 18,000 miles of ultrahigh-voltage transmission lines. The U.S. has built zero.” 

In a more recent Atlantic article, the reason for our sorry transmission system (and housing and public transportation crises) is explored. The author blames community input processus that allow a small minority to block important projects that would deliver big net benefits to society. Here’s how he explains it: 

“The community-input process is disastrous for two broad reasons. First, community input is not representative of the local population. Second, the perception of who counts as part of an affected local community tends to include everyone who feels the negative costs of development but only a fragment of the beneficiaries.

Not everybody is a complainer, but pretty much everyone who shows up to community meetings is. Katherine Einstein, David Glick, and Maxwell Palmer, Boston University political scientists and co-authors of Neighborhood Defenders, examined zoning and planning meetings across Massachusetts. They found that a measly 14.6 percent of people who showed up to these events were in favor of the relevant projects. Meeting participants were also 25 percentage points more likely to be homeowners and were significantly older, maler, and whiter than their communities.”

Right now, this very problem is holding back important transmission projects across the country. 

The New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) has been perhaps the most high profile of embattled transmission projects. For those who don’t know, NECEC is a transmission line  that would transport hydropower from Quebec to the Massachusetts grid. The NECEC would have a big impact on Massachusetts’ energy portfolio. The transmission project promised to transport 9.45 million MWh of electricity from Hydro-Quebec to Massachusetts every year. That would account for around 8% of the electricity used in all of New England, powering close to 1.2 million homes.

However the project has been brought to a standstill and risks never being completed. Opponents, a mix concerned residents, environmental groups, Native American tribes, and rival utilities, successfully got Maine voters to pass a measure that halted the project last November. On May 10th, the referendum’s legality will be decided on by the state’s supreme court. 

In New York, too, a power line that would help NYC re-transition to clean power (the Indian Point nuclear plant used to provide tons of clean power to the city but environmentalists successfully lobbied to have it closed last year) is also at risk of being derailed by similar community mechanisms. The conflict is detailed in a recent Grist article:

“The Champlain Hudson Power Express — or CHPE, pronounced “Chippy” — will do something similar: it will funnel clean energy into the city via a transmission line, part of which will be buried under the Hudson River. But the power CHPE will bring in isn’t local — it’s sourced from Canada, where dams owned by a company called Hydro-Québec generate a bounty of electricity. To meet its climate goals, the city has approved the construction of a 339-mile power cable carrying that excess hydropower from Québec all the way to Queens. This project, however, has faced stiff opposition from environmentalists and community groups, who argue that it outsources clean energy and jobs to a different country; from First Nations in Canada, who allege the company’s dams perpetrate environmental harms on Indigenous communities in Québec; and from critics who say hydropower isn’t as clean as its proponents claim.”

Luckily, the opposition groups have not yet been successful in New York.  

These are the constant battles that transition projects are almost guaranteed to endure in the USA. Even when the opposition doesn’t succeed in derailing the project altogether, they hold them up. Until our broken system of community input is reformed, the U.S. is destined to a hamstrung transmission system, and consequently sub-par renewable adoption as well. We know what the root problem is, now it’s time to take action.


Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on May 23, 2022

I sympathize with your frustration, especially with respect to NECEC.

So, what is the fix? I agree that government by referendum is ineffective, especially with respect to complex issues, for exactly the reasons you cite.  It reflects how weakened our institutions have become when there is so little confidence in government via elected representatives and the agencies they create to bring non or bi-partisan expertise to balance «the greater good» with the rights of the individual. It makes me wonder how the heck the US ever managed to build what was once the world’s best infrastructure for energy, housing, transportation, education. 
We now have the politics of pitting individuals and groups against each other as if freedom and prosperity were a «zero sum» proposition, i.e. «Your gain is my loss» and vice versa. Perhaps the most telling symptom is the degradation of a tax system that once helped to establish a far more equitable distribution of wealth and upward mobility, though far from inclusive of all citizens.

Yes, «Broken Democracy Ruins Transmission Projects» and a great deal more. The less «broken Democracy» has been degraded under our eyes and noses, just when we need it the most. Building it back may take quite a bit of time that we don’t have. 


Henry Craver's picture
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