Op Ed: Utilities outdated “solutions” don’t fix todays energy needs

Throughout our region, Eversource continues to promote the use of 19th century thinking to solve 21st century problems. Rather than embrace the technological innovations now available to meet our energy needs, they continue to impose their corporate will on communities simply because it’s more profitable for them and their shareholders.

Locally, Eversource’s latest such attempt is a proposed Sudbury to Hudson transmission line. This project now sits before the Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB), which will determine the fate of the project – and the communities impacted by it. The EFSB should reject the proposal for a Sudbury to Hudson transmission line and projects like it because it offers an outdated fix to a nonexistent problem, and its construction would cause great harm to the environment.

With the promise of big rewards, Eversource remains bullish on a transmission project conceived nearly a decade ago. Eversource claims that a new Sudbury to Hudson transmission line is necessary for the reliability of the region. However, the project is based on a 2008 study by ISO-NE which forecasted – incorrectly – that energy demand in Massachusetts would increase yearly. Instead, demand has steadily decreased, largely due to the widespread adoption of solar and energy efficiency measures across the state.

In light of inaccuracies in demand estimates, Eversource defends the Sudbury to Hudson line as a proactive response to growing regional deficiencies. It is difficult to see how the plan is forward-thinking, though, when it is based on obsolete energy projections.

What is clear are Eversource’s financial incentives for proceeding with the project. Utilities are the only businesses that can be wrong on project cost estimates without repercussion – cost overruns are simply passed on to the electric ratepayer with no accountability. In fact, every dollar spent by Eversource on reliability projects gets fully reimbursed by the ratepayer with a guaranteed 12 percent rate of return. With incentives like this, it comes as no surprise that Massachusetts pays the second highest transmission costs in the nation on our monthly utility bills.

In addition, Eversource’s preferred route would destroy valued natural resources on an astronomical scale. The transmission line would bisect 900 acres of conservation lands, putting a utility corridor in an area that houses endangered and threatened species, and would require at least 26.7 acres of tree clearing and 5.5 acres of new wetland alteration. Once the land is cleared in these environmentally sensitive areas, Eversource will treat it with harmful herbicides, including a chemical determined by the World Health Organization’s cancer assessment agency to be a “probable carcinogen.”

Eversource and other utilities have choices when it comes to strengthening our grid. Unfortunately for consumers and the environment, building obtrusive transmission lines that decimate our natural resources is their most profitable solution.

If the reliability need in Greater Marlborough sub-region is justified and Eversource must continue with the Sudbury to Hudson line, they have the option of routing the project under roads where a utility corridor already exists. Notably, this alternative would not involve the devastation of conservation lands and by Eversource’s own admission, has no environmental impact. We endorse this option as it would have the least destructive impacts on our communities.

But the Sudbury to Hudson project highlights a larger issue: how electricity transmission is planned and financed in the state. If we are to truly modernize our grid and achieve resiliency with 21st century solutions, then we must increase incentives for investing in clean, decentralized resources – such as distributed generation and achieving energy efficiency goals – and decrease rewards for constructing transmission.

Governor Baker’s Energy and Environmental Affairs Office must uphold its mandate to protect open space and species habitats, review the impact of major infrastructure developments, and enhance the state’s role in energy conservation and production. The Siting Board must acknowledge that better alternatives exist for maintaining a reliable grid.

It’s time to put an end to for-profit utilities calling the shots and lobbying the government for their financial gain. If Eversource spent more time advocating for better state policies on alternative energy, including solar, and less time building additional outdated transmission infrastructure, ratepayers and the environment would all be better off.

State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, represents the Middlesex and Worcester District. Renata Aylward, Melissa Gough, Ray Phillips, and Bill Schineller for Protect Sudbury, a citizen advocacy group organizing to prevent all power lines along the MBTA ROW and to prevent above-ground power lines anywhere in Sudbury.