Blogs > Ecology > Electric cable projects vie to bring power to NYC – with enormous stakes for the Hudson & Indigenous communities

Electric cable projects vie to bring power to NYC – with enormous stakes for the Hudson & Indigenous communities

nyc-MissyFalkenberg20160110_163519

View more images on our Flickr site

As developers compete for renewable energy credits, Riverkeeper urges New York’s Governor to avoid the worst impacts – particularly from Canadian hydropower and the proposed Champlain Hudson Power Express.

NOTE: Read our update, Sept. 20: NYS announces renewable energy incentives for projects that would damage the Hudson: A shameful use of public money

Suddenly, a number of proposals have emerged to deliver power to New York City with electric cables – and some could have enormous consequences for communities and the environment.

New York CitySeven companies are vying for valuable New York State energy credits that are designed to promote the transmission of green, carbon-free electric power to New York City on a large scale. Bringing large amounts of renewable energy to New York City is an essential part of New York’s transition to a carbon-free electric grid.

Not all projects are fully defined. Riverkeeper is currently reviewing the available information and potential benefits and impacts of each. Of particular concern are projects that would bury cable in the Hudson – digging up the river bottom – and projects that rely on massive, destructive hydropower – energy considered “renewable” but with damaging impacts of its own.

One project, the Champlain Hudson Power Express (CHPE), has been on the table for more than a decade, and it relies on power from massive hydroelectric dams in Quebec. Such facilities have a long history of destroying rivers and harming Indigenous communities by disrupting their relationship with the land and poisoning the food web with methylmercury. Any dam destroys otherwise free-flowing rivers, with profound changes to ecology and water quality; these large dam projects are destructive on a massive scale. What’s more, the reservoirs behind dams produce greenhouse gases.

Other proposals, by contrast, would transmit wind or solar power from within New York State, generating jobs and revenue here rather than Canada. Some would use existing rights of way, such as rail or highway routes, instead of the river. Some would use the river, but for fewer miles than CHPE.

Riverkeeper is urging New York State to prioritize projects with the least impacts, relative to these and other factors when the state selects one or possibly two projects to receive the sought-after “Tier 4 renewable energy credits” later this year. In our letter to the Governor July 12, Riverkeeper asked that the selected projects support New York State businesses; that they avoid burying cable in the Hudson; that they spare any harm to Indigenous or other populations, and that they use well-sited wind and solar power, not river-killing hydropower. [Read the letter here.]

The CHPE project raises alarms on all counts.

Riverkeeper initially negotiated an agreement with the CHPE project, when it was the only proposal of its kind, assuming at the time that it would be essential to replacing energy needs after the shutdown of Indian Point nuclear plant’s two nuclear reactors. That assumption was incorrect. Increased renewable energy generation and reductions in demand have already “replaced” the equivalent of one reactor, and alternative sources of energy are coming online every day. In 2019 Riverkeeper withdrew our support for the project, and we remain opposed.

Our concerns over the potential impacts of the CHPE project, and others that would use the Hudson as a conduit, are many.

Hydropower and Indigenous communities

Hydropower is billed as “renewable.” Rain falls from the sky, flows down rivers, fills reservoirs, and drives turbines. But as a society, we need renewable energy that is also sustainable.

Massive amounts of concrete are used to build dams, and concrete production is one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters worldwide. And when land is flooded to create reservoirs, microbes convert naturally occurring mercury in soils into methylmercury, a toxin that bioaccumulates in fish. This poisons the food web.

This Hydro-Quebec promotional video shows the extraordinary scale of these hydroelectric projects.

For Indigenous communities in eastern Canada, living in close relationship with the land and fishing and hunting for food, the effect is devastating. By poisoning the food web, dams poison their bodies, and destroy their way of life.

A 2016 Harvard study explored these human health risks and concluded that 90 percent of proposed Canadian hydroelectric projects may expose local indigenous communities to methylmercury. Reservoirs also release methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

First Nations are, and have been, speaking out in protest. (See Quebec Hydro CLA$H, Innu Nation and North American Mega Dam Resistance Alliance.) During a videoconference last year, Lucien Wabanonik, Elected Councilor with Lac Simon’s Band Council in Quebec, was asked by an advisor to the Ramapough Lenape community in New York what message he would give New Yorkers about the impacts of hydropower.

“We have been robbed of our future, of our land,” he responded. “We have been robbed and ignored by governments of Quebec and Canada, and of course Hydro Quebec.”

We shouldn’t pretend this is “green” energy, when it causes such damage.

Hundreds of people have delivered that message to New York State. Please take a moment to visit this page add your voice.

Hudson River impacts

To carry power 339 miles from the U.S.-Canada border to New York City, the CHPE cable would be laid along 200 miles in Lake Champlain and the Hudson River using a “jet plow,” a machine that uses high powered water jets to blast away sediment to create a 7-foot-deep trench. The cable is laid in the trench and covered.

One potential danger, from CHPE or any other project routed through the riverbed of the Hudson, is the mobilization of legacy industrial contaminants like the PCBs that were dumped by General Electric and remain in river sediment and contaminate fish. The New York State Department of Health cautions women under 50 and children not to eat fish from the Hudson, due primarily to PCBs as well as other contaminants.

Churning up contaminants could pose additional risk of PCB exposure – and not just through fish. The Hudson is used as a drinking water source for seven communities in the mid-Hudson region. These “Hudson 7” communities wrote to the state Public Service Commission about its concern that sediments contaminated by PCBs and other pollutants would be churned up near their drinking water intakes, and urged that the cable be routed away from the area, on land instead of in the river. Bill Carlos, chairman of the Poughkeepsie Joint Water Board, said running the cable in the Hudson through the Hudson 7 area “represents a direct threat to every one of the 106,000 people who get their drinking water from the river.”

Endangered sturgeon

Another potential danger comes from the electromagnetic fields (EMF) produced by these enormous, direct-current cables. The CHPE cables would carry a level of power equivalent to one entire Indian Point reactor. There is a growing body of evidence that magnetic fields generated by in-water cables will inhibit the ability of fish to navigate, and affect the behavior of various species.

Many fish, especially migratory species, have evolved highly refined sensory abilities to detect EMFs essential to find prey, detect predators and find mates. Studies have shown that human-caused EMFs may interfere with the ability of fish to orient themselves and navigate, and that they interfere with the foraging behavior of sturgeon, the icon of the estuary and an endangered species.

CHPE’s developers say that there is no “proof” that EMF will reduce the survivability of Atlantic sturgeon and other species. But let’s not forget that although the Hudson supports one of the most viable remaining populations of Atlantic sturgeon, the number of spawning-age females, which once numbered in the thousands, is now estimated in the hundreds. While New York State has celebrated the increasing number of young sturgeon found in the river, the key measure – the numbers of adult sturgeon – has remained virtually unchanged in decades. Sturgeon are not recovering, so the precautionary principle must apply here.

We wouldn’t know for years how sturgeon are affected by the cable, because sturgeon don’t reach spawning age until they’re 18 to 20 years old. We must not use the Hudson as an experiment.

Economic factors

Cables that transmit in-state wind or solar power have the lowest impact and have the major advantage that they generate jobs and investment in New York State. Why would we favor a project that shifts energy jobs and investment to Canada?

The shipping industry has its own concern over cables being routed in the Hudson – that emergency anchoring could snag a cable once they are installed.

New York’s Tier 4 program is an important step in the State’s transition to renewable energy. Initially Riverkeeper and others opposed the Tier 4 credit process, because we felt it favored Canadian hydropower, but the process was approved anyway. We hope to get a good result from a flawed process.

This step should be taken in a manner that minimizes environmental impacts, in New York and elsewhere. Although the first of these proposals was the Champlain Hudson Power Express, there are now six other bidders proposing solutions, each of which promises to have considerably less impact.

Riverkeeper is not the only organization raising these concerns. A coalition of groups – The Sierra Club, Riverkeeper, Project Drawdown, 350Brooklyn, 350 NYC, the PEAK Coalition, WE ACT for Environmental Justice, People’s Climate Movement New York, Adirondack Council, New York Communities for Change, New York Energy Democracy Alliance, Sane Energy Project, Environmental Advocates NY, and Food and Water Watch – submitted a letter to Governor Cuomo emphasizing the potential benefits of in-state generation. It calls for prioritizing economic and job-creation benefits for New Yorkers, upholding labor standards, respecting the rights of Indigenous people, and other priorities.

Both letters, from Riverkeeper and from the coalition, show that the CHPE cable is the worst option for New York. There are other, better options that are more deserving of public subsidies.

We are counting on New York to make the right decision.

Hundreds of individuals have spoken out. We need thousands. If you haven’t added your voice, please take action now.

Press coverage

The Journal News: Riverkeeper fears underwater Hudson cables will be ‘an extension cord to New York City’

AP: Plans To Get NYC Onto Green Power Include Burying Lines Underground, Under Hudson River

City Limits: New York’s Hydropower Plan Stirs Concerns Over Impact on Waterways

The Revelator: Promise or Peril? Importing Hydropower to Fuel the Clean Energy Transition

InsideClimate News: New York and New England Need More Clean Energy. Is Hydropower From Canada the Best Way to Get it?


To power NYC, bring NYS solar & wind, not Canadian hydropower

Urge Governor Hochul to support truly sustainable, homegrown sources of energy – not massive Hydro-Quebec dams, or electric cables buried in the Hudson.

Take Action

 

Don't let New York State give up on New York City waters
Become a Member