Some of the private-sector spadework for Cuomo’s energy highway may already be done

Andrew Cuomo. (Photo via Andrew Cuomo 2010.)
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In his Jan. 4 State of the State address, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed building “an energy highway system” that, in its breadth and impact on New Yorkers’ daily lives, could rival Dwight D. Eisenhower’s interstate system, one of the most ambitious public-works projects in American history.

“We have supply of power in northern New York, Quebec," said Cuomo. "We have power supply in western New York. We have a tremendous need for power in downstate New York. Let’s connect the dots. Let’s connect the supply dots to the need. What Eisenhower did in the ‘50s, by building a interstate system, is what this energy highway can be to the next generation.”

It’s not quite clear what the governor meant by all that, and his spokesman declined a request from Capital to elaborate.

But at least one part of his remarks would seem to point to a project that Transmission Developers Inc., a company backed by the Blackstone Group, has been developing since 2008.

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“Just like we built the Northway, we will develop an energy expressway down from Quebec,” said the governor in the lengthier document issued alongside the actual speech. “This will preserve Western New York’s current allocation of low cost hydropower and at the same time help address the energy needs of Downstate ... We believe private companies will finance and build $2 billion in infrastructure to complete the system and build the capacity to supply New Yorkers.”

That idea sounded familiar to everyone who had been following a proposal made public by Transmission Developers in early 2010 that called for burying two six-inch-diameter cables three feet beneath the beds of Lake Champlain and the Hudson River that would carry 1,000 megawatts of mostly hydropower, and some windpower, from Canada to New York City. The cable would circumvent the energy bottleneck around Albany that now prevents the upstate's full energy-generation capacity from reaching the metropolitan area. (The bottleneck, and ensuing reduction in supply, is said to raise the city’s energy prices accordingly.)

“His proposal in his state of the state was fairly vague, but mentioning a connection from Canada that would be a $2 billion investment certainly lines up with the very bare bones facts of the TDI proposal, which is a cable from Quebec to New York City with a $2 billion price tag,” said Josh Verleun, a staff attorney at Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy group.

Don Jessome, the president and C.E.O. of Transmission Developers, declined to address the connection between the governor's remarks and his project, except to say, "We’re very encouraged by what we heard in the State of the State address. We completely agree with the governor that there are congestion issues and the southern portion of New York needs new capacity, and we hope our project can be part of the overall solution for the State of New York."

If the Transmission Developers project is indeed one and the same as the Cuomo proposal, then, like Genting's $4 billion, largest-in-the-country convention center plan, its inclusion in the governor’s State of the State would represent another effort by the governor to work with a private-sector entity to generate economic activity at little direct cost to the taxpayer. Also, as was the case with the Genting deal, it would mark a significant victory for both Transmission Developers and its lobbyists.

In January 2009, Transmission Developers agreed to pay the Albany firm Brown McMahon & Weinraub, headed by Patrick Brown, a former top aide to Governor Mario Cuomo, to lobby for what is variously described as a "proposed transmission project" and a "cable," according to public documents. In late 2009, and again in late 2010, Transmission Developers agreed to pay Brown and David Weinraub, then of Brown & Weinraub, another $90,000 a year to lobby on its behalf at the governor's office, state legislature and the Public Service Commission, which must approve the new cable transmission project.

Brown, who’s no longer employed as a lobbyist by TDI, declined to comment for this story. On June 1, Dan Klores Government Affairs (which also has Cuomo ties, both to Mario and Andrew) took over the account, for $90,000 a year. 

The wheels on this project have been turning concurrently. On March 30, 2010, TDI filed a petition with the Public Service Commission requesting approval for the creation of the so-called Champlain Hudson Power Express, through which the company would channel 1,000 megawatts of electricity to New York City via 330 miles of cable.

The resulting power would help offset the loss of some 2,000 megawatts emanating from the Indian Point nuclear power plant, if the governor succeeds in shuttering it, as he says he would like to. Indian Point supplies about a quarter of the energy needs of New York City and Westchester. More than half of New York City's electricity is generated using natural gas, according to Con Edison, most of it originating in the southwest, the Gulf, and Canada.

TDI estimates that construction of the transmission line would take three years and that the line could become operational in 2016. Jessome says the project would create approximately 200 construction jobs and 10 to 20 permanent jobs.

Since its application, TDI has been engaged in confidential negotiations with dozens of interested parties, including power companies and enviromental N.G.O.s, with the intention of reaching a settlement, which is standard procedure in such circumstances. The negotiations are being overseen by two administrative law judges, and a joint proposal is expected by February 17. That date, however, is a moving target.

"It’s a fluid date and has changed many times in the past," said Hayley Carlock, the environmental advocacy attorney at Scenic Hudson, which has been participating in the talks. "I can say I think it’s moving towards an end, one way or another, fairly soon."

TDI must also attain approvals from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the federal Department of Energy, both now in process.

A local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, meanwhile, has come out in opposition to the project, preferring that the state support local, rather than foreign, energy generation projects. But environmental advocates, who worry about the impact of a 330-mile-long electromagnetic field on river habitats, appear poised to give the project their very cautious approval.

“We do believe that if certain habitat areas are protected, if certain measures are taken, that it might be possible to run the cable under the Hudson River in a manner that would satisfy our concerns,” said Verleun.