Friday, July 19, 2024

Boston Properties’ Blue Garage in Kendall Square in Cambridge is being transformed by Eversource power needs. It’s seen Aug. 20, 2022. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The state Energy Facilities Siting Board gave tentative approval Monday to the huge project to build an electric substation 11 stories underground in Kendall Square and connect it with 8.3 miles of underground cables to existing substations in East Cambridge, Somerville, Cambridgeport and Brighton. The tentative decision rejected a proposal by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to change one of the cable routes chosen by electric utility Eversource.

The 226-page ruling, though not final, is an important step in completion of the project, which Eversource says is necessary to handle rapidly rising demand for power in Cambridge and surrounding communities because of new development, and to transition to electric vehicles and heating and cooling systems in response to climate change.

The new substation, the first of its kind in Massachusetts and one of the few underground facilities in the United States, will cost an estimated $714.6 million for the equipment; the cost of the land and underground vault wasn’t given in the decision but a deal between Cambridge and property owner BXB will save money, the board said. The underground cable routes approved by the board will cost an estimated $600 million.The estimated cost to ratepayers for the entire project over 40 years, after discounting the amount back to the 2029 date when it will be completed, is $2 billion, according to Eversource filings with the board; the impact would be shared by all 1.8 million customers over the 40-year life of the project.

The siting board has scheduled a hearing at 9 a.m. June 27 to discuss its tentative decision. The event will be held on Zoom and in person at the Department of Public Utility office at One South Station in Boston.

Asked to comment, spokespersons for Eversource and its ally on the project, the city of Cambridge, gave low-key endorsements of the decision. “We appreciate the [siting board’s] thoughtful consideration and approval of this critical energy program with the release of the tentative decision and look forward to continuing our ongoing collaboration with local stakeholders,” said William H. Hinkle, of Eversource. “Our work together to make this project a reality will help lead the way in ushering in our unprecedented clean energy transition.”

Cambridge spokesperson Jeremy Warnick said: “The city of Cambridge appreciates the thoughtfulness and thoroughness that the Energy Facilities Siting Board has committed to this critical project. While this is a lengthy decision that is still being reviewed, the city of Cambridge supports the draft decision approving the preferred alternative routes developed by Eversource in close collaboration with the city.”

As for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, spokesperson Kimberly Allen said: “MIT respects the EFSB-led process and is carefully reviewing the tentative decision.” At a Cambridge City Council Health & Environment Committee hearing on the project Nov. 21, Joe Higgins, the school’s vice-president for campus services and stewardship with responsibility for construction, said it would not appeal a siting board decision. 

The committee and later, the full City Council, voted to ask MIT to withdraw its proposal.

Risk of delay

The university had stunned participants in the board proceedings on the eve of hearings last October by proposing an alternate underground cabling route between the proposed substation and the Charles River that would have avoided running wiring down Vassar Street. MIT said the street already had myriad underground connections between its facilities and constituted the “heart” of the campus. The university proposed to use the Grand Junction railroad, Albany Street, Massachusetts Avenue and Main Street instead. 

The city and Eversource said they feared that giving full consideration to the MIT route would delay a decision. They also said the alternate route had flaws that would make it impossible to build. Eversource said the school hadn’t ever said it intended to submit an alternate route proposal during three years of meetings to map out cable routes.

The university denied those criticisms and submitted evidence that it said showed its route was better than the Vassar Street option – using Eversource’s own scoring methodology.

Not “clearly superior”

The siting board rejected MIT’s arguments and supported Eversource’s positions. Despite the routing scores cited by the school, which favored the railroad, the board agreed with Eversource that it’s not practical to score routes that have a “fatal flaw” or other serious disadvantages that make them almost impossible to build, which was Eversource’s claim. The board also found that the school’s proposal was at a much earlier engineering stage than Eversource’s Vassar Street route, making assertions about cost, constructibility and reliability uncertain.

The tentative decision also cited Cambridge’s preferences as communicated to Eversource, including avoiding the Grand Junction railroad. The board noted that the city had “expressed strong reservations to the [MIT route] and had clearly stated it may not be willing to issue necessary permits.” In a footnote, the board suggested that Cambridge had no veto power. While “Cambridge has played an active, important and constructive role in the evolution of the proposed project” and the siting board gave “considerable weight” to the city’s recommendations, “the board also exercises independent judgment in reviewing such recommendations in conjunction with other evidence and arguments in the proceeding,” the footnote said.

Overall, the board found that MIT hadn’t shown its proposal was “clearly superior” to the Vassar Street route. “Accordingly, the siting board does not advance the [MIT proposal] further for detailed evaluation,” the tentative ruling said.

Conditions for Eversource

The decision included several conditions imposed on Eversource, including:

Because the water table at the underground substation is much higher than the 11-story depth of the facility, there is a “possible risk of water infiltration of the vault” enclosing the substation. Eversource must develop a “maintenance protocol” to evaluate the performance of “sealant joints” and report any “incidents and any remediation measures.”

The company must review projections of “sea level rise” by Cambridge and the state every five years and file a report with the siting board “analyzing the necessity, appropriateness and cost of implementing additional flood mitigation measures” at the underground substation.

Eversource must generally limit construction hours to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays, with some exceptions. The company must get written permission from communities to extend the hours, except for emergencies.

The utility must develop plans to notify the public about construction and traffic measures. The plans must include a way for residents to contact the company.

Eversource is required to get approval from the Cambridge Fire Department and “other jurisdictional authorities” for a fire safety design and plan for the underground substation and work with the department to create an emergency response plan. The emergency plan must be submitted to the siting board before construction starts.

Eversource is ordered to use “multiple crews, where practicable,” to meet MIT’s concerns about construction and also to communicate “closely” with MIT about construction activities. The board rejected MIT’s request that the agency order Eversource to sign a memorandum of understanding about specific mitigation, but did say the two parties should continue negotiations and report back on the status 60 days after the final siting board decision.

Somerville did not persuade the board to order Eversource to build space to put overhead wires underground in the city’s portion of the project, in Union Square and Boynton Yards. The board said that the cost of burying all the wires, including ones that do not provide electricity, is unknown and the request is outside the scope of its authority.