Friday, June 14, 2024

A worker at MIT’s Central Utility Plant seen in a 2018 video by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The huge Eversource project to build an underground electric substation in Cambridge and add more than 8 miles of underground cables is facing unexpected conflict because of last-minute opposition from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to cable routes through its campus. As hearings on the Eversource plan begin this week, MIT has proposed routes that Eversource says it will not accept.

The quarrel is laid out in filings with the state Energy Facilities Siting Board. According to Eversource, the project and its goal to expand capacity to serve rising demand for electricity in the Cambridge area could be delayed for more than a year if the MIT plan gets full consideration as an official proposed route.

On Monday, the first day of hearings, city engineer Kathy Watkins said the city is trying to schedule a meeting in the next week among her, Eversource and MIT to “identify concerns and try to address this in a way that the project would not be delayed.”

The siting board filings also reveal how much Eversource customers could pay in rates for the project: $2 billion over the 40-year life of the expansion. That is after discounting future payments “back to the in-service date” of 2029, Eversource spokesperson Christopher McKinnon said in a statement. Though the total seems prodigious, it’s not known how much it would raise individual electricity rates – the cost will be borne by all 1.8 million Massachusetts Eversource customers, and over 40 years.

“Customer load remains a big variable for potential customer cost impacts,” McKinnon said. “The project will not be placed in service until at least 2029, making it difficult to accurately project what the loads will be then and beyond.” The cost of construction is an estimated $1.5 billion, he said.

McKinnon said the project is a crucial component of modernizing the electric grid” to move toward the state’s “unprecedented clean energy transition, while ensuring safe and reliable electric service for customers in Cambridge, Somerville and Boston – areas that continue to experience rapid growth in demand for electricity. This comprehensive project will allow us to bring more electricity to these high-demand areas through new underground transmission lines and upgrades to the local distribution system, directly benefiting our customers.”

Previous challenges

The dispute with MIT is not the first time Eversource has faced a challenge to its proposed siting choices – the utility moved the location of the 10-story underground substation to 290 Binney St. in Kendall Square after city and neighborhood representatives objected to putting it across the street from the Kennedy-Longfellow School on Fulkerson Street in East Cambridge. And residents on Hampshire and Columbia Streets challenged a cable route in their neighborhood last summer and won a relocation to the Grand Junction Railroad, with support from politicians and others, including siting board staff.

But those objections, and changes, came relatively early in the planning process, in 2020 for the substation location and last year for the Hampshire Street route. In contrast, MIT filed testimony criticizing Eversource’s routes through its campus and proposing new ones only on Sept. 23, about one month before hearings were to begin and after the utility had held more than three years of discussions with the school and other stakeholders about route planning, Eversource said in a filing. The utility knew earlier that the school had some concerns about plans for its campus but had no indication it would propose new routes to the siting board, Eversource said.

The underground cables need to go through the campus to connect the new substation in Kendall Square to existing Eversource substations on Putnam Avenue in Cambridgeport and across the Charles River in Boston’s Allston neighborhood. Eversource’s preferred routes through MIT travel along Ames Street and Vassar Street in the “heart” of the campus, according to the university. The school wants to move them toward the outskirts, on Wadsworth Street, Albany Street and along the Grand Junction Railroad.

MIT’s arguments

Experts from a consulting firm hired by the school made impassioned arguments against the utility’s choices in filed testimony. They called MIT “a city within a city,” with its own police, fire and emergency workers, a “central utility plant” that sends steam heat, compressed air, electricity and hot and cold water to scores of buildings, and streets crammed with existing underground cables and other essential structures and wires.

In testimony, the experts likened the MIT central plant to a human heart, with underground lines from the plant running across Ames and Vassar streets functioning “similar to the critical arteries in the human body where disruption to a mainline can have a catastrophic impact on what it serves.”

Emphasizing the school’s importance and prestige, their testimony said: “At the outset, in assessing the impacts of the Eversource [preferred routes] on the MIT campus, it is important to understand MIT’s unique circumstances and attributes as a large research university and technology institute known internationally for its contributions to scientific and technological innovation.”

They said locating Eversource cables under the tangle of existing utilities, the construction needed to build them and the possible need to repair them if something goes wrong could cause shutdowns and disruption that posed grave risks to everything and everyone on campus – from research labs depending on the central utility plant, to research animals that “are particularly sensitive to disruptions in their environment, including noise and vibrations around campus.” 

Students could also suffer from construction impacts, the consultants said. “Shutdowns or disruption … during exam times can have serious consequences to students’ mental and physical health, since these are the most stressful times for students at MIT. MIT strives to limit noise and disruption for its students throughout the year,” the university’s testimony said. “The Eversource Preferred [Route] Segments will inevitably cause significant increase in noise and physical disruptions such as dust, traffic and obstruction that will impair the academic learning process.”

Eversource disagrees

The experts said MIT’s routes would be less expensive, easier to build and would have less impact on the institute. Eversource disagreed, in testimony and in answers to questions from the siting board. The company said that it actually considered those routes earlier in the planning process and, after subjecting them to the same vetting process it used with other possibilities, had rejected them.

Eversource also said Cambridge officials had discouraged using Wadsworth or Albany streets and the Grand Junction Railroad in meetings with the utility. Cambridge has not filed comments with the siting board. Eversource said Cambridge was worried about locating underground cable near a huge sewer pipe under Albany Street – along a proposed MIT route – that serves a third of the city’s population. The city also plans to develop a path for cyclists and pedestrians along the railroad, but city engineer Watkins said the primary problem with using that route for construction near MIT was the cramped space next to the rail line in that section of the line.

Watkins also said that all the potential routes for underground cables — those preferred by Eversource and by MIT — “have a lot of challenges.” Eversource “has been working really collaboratively with all parties looking at getting as much input as they could,” she said.

Siting board hearings are expected to continue for two weeks, with the first week devoted to Eversource’s plan and the second week examining MIT’s proposals. Eversource said in a filing that it needs a decision by the board by next June to have the substation and cables in service by June 2028, its target.

The siting board will consider the cost and need for the project as well as the environmental impact. In a filing, Eversource said its calculations of increased revenue it needs from customers to pay for the project assume that it will earn an average return on investment before taxes of 9.9 percent, and 7.7 percent after taxes. Its estimates of additional money it will require from ratepayers range from $168.2 million in 2029, the first year of the project life, to $46 million in 2068, the end of its projected 40-year useful life.