Sunday, July 14, 2024

MIT wants to avoid Eversource construction on Vassar Street in Cambridge. (Photo: bujcich via Flickr)

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was asked Tuesday by a City Council committee vote to withdraw its opposition to Eversource’s preferred route for new transmission lines through its campus – an unusual attempt to pressure the school to prevent a potential delay of the utility’s huge transmission upgrade in Cambridge, Somerville and Boston.

The resolution, approved unanimously by the council’s Health and Environment Committee, now goes to the full council. Supporters hope the body will “go formally on record” requesting MIT to abandon its own route preferences, committee chair Patty Nolan said. “We know you’re amazingly important to us,” Nolan said, describing the purpose of the vote. “But we really hope that you will come forward and not oppose [Eversource] and work together and pledge to make sure that we jointly do everything we can to accelerate this.”

Eversource has applied to the state Energy Facilities Siting Board and the Department of Public Utilities to build a first-in-the-country 11-story underground substation in Kendall Square and more than 8 miles of underground cable to connect the facility to existing substations in Cambridge, Somerville and Boston, at an estimated construction cost of $1.5 billion. The utility says the project is needed to handle rapidly increasing electric loads in all three cities from new development and conversions to “green energy” such as electric cars and heat pumps.

Eversource chose preferred cable routes after two years of meetings with government officials, advocacy groups and property owners, including MIT and Cambridge officials. The university surprised participants by formally opposing the Eversource routes through its campus and filing proposed alternates about a month before hearings at the siting board were to begin Oct. 16.

MIT wants to avoid cable on Vassar Street, the committee meeting was told by Joe Higgins, vice president for campus services and stewardship with responsibility for construction. “It’s really the heart and the lungs, and the vital organs that keeps MIT going and powered,” and with more than 500 utility crossings there would inevitably be outages for construction and maintenance that would affect the university severely, Higgins said. MIT has proposed alternate routes on the Grand Junction Railroad, Albany Street and Wadsworth Street; Eversource says they would be more expensive and more difficult if not impossible to build.

Calling out MIT

The city has officially sided with Eversource in testimony by Public Works commissioner Kathleen Watkins, who said the MIT alternate routes had been considered during the two years of consultations and that “the city does not see the MIT routes as viable routes.”

Eversource and the city of Cambridge fear that if the board decides to give the alternate routes formal status, requirements for public notice, hearings and other procedures will delay a decision for as long as two years past the June 2024 date that Eversource says is necessary to complete the new project by 2030. Eversource experts gave a grim picture of the capacity of the existing transmission system even now, with one saying that with sharply rising demand the situation is “dire.” One Eversource witness at the siting board hearings said the utility might have to put portable generators “on the streets of Cambridge” in an emergency.

MIT’s own buildings “are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions in Cambridge, and their campus emissions rather than declining are increasing, and notably so in 2022,” said Maureen Hemphill of Mothers Out Front, the local organization fighting climate change, during public comment. “We feel consequently that it’s appropriate for MIT to do their share to support much-needed public infrastructure improvements.” Another commenter, James Williamson of North Cambridge, pointed out that “MIT is contributing to this. They’re contributing to the expansion of biotech in Kendall Square.” Williamson also questioned “how much growth, expansion and use of energy that requires additional load should we really be having in our city and in our country, for that matter?”

Scenario for backing down

The committee meeting was a compressed version of three weeks of siting board hearings, with Eversource and MIT presenting their charts, route maps and arguments. Most councillors took a more practical approach.

“It seems extremely unlikely to me that the siting board will ultimately approve MIT’s alternate route, if the city of Cambridge is saying we can’t possibly do it. The MBTA is saying we can’t possibly do it. And Eversource is saying we can’t possibly do it, that argument is going to prevail over MIT saying ‘We don’t want it on Vassar Street,’” councillor Quinton Zondervan said. “So it seems to me that we’re just going to waste a lot of time, because the siting board has to go through their process … And ultimately, we’re going to get back to the same point where we are now, which is we’re gonna go with Eversource’s route.”

Higgins downplayed the risk of delay, saying the MIT campus was a small part of the project and that other route problems might lengthen the siting board’s deliberations. Higgins also pledged that the school would not appeal a board decision, in answer to a question from Nolan. Higgins also indicated that if the board does not decide to treat the school’s routes as a formal proposal, which could come earlier than the final decision, it would end its attempt to move the routes.

In the end, though, the committee went ahead with its vote to request that MIT drop its opposition. The board – over Eversource’s objections – has already extended the time for parties to file briefs and reply briefs by a month.