Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Boston Properties’ Blue Garage in Kendall Square in Cambridge is being transformed by Eversource power needs. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The head of the state board that oversees utility projects heaped praise on Eversource and the city of Cambridge as the board gave final approval Thursday to a huge Eversource project that includes an 11-story underground substation in Kendall Square and more than 8 miles of underground cable. Eversource says the additions are needed to meet increasing demand for electricity because of burgeoning development in Cambridge and neighboring communities, and the move toward electrification to combat climate change.

Energy Facility Siting Board chair Rebecca L. Tepper, who serves as secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, applauded the electric utility’s efforts to communicate with and consult the public and stakeholders who will be affected by the project. “This is the kind of outreach we have wanted for years,” Tepper said.

“This is an extremely important project to the city of Cambridge and the people who live here,” Tepper said. “It took a tremendous amount of time.” One of the benefits of spending the time is that “it will leave everyone feeling they were heard,” she said.

Tepper also praised Cambridge for the deal between the city and Boston Properties that enabled Eversource to move the location and plan for the  substation from an aboveground facility on Fulkerson Street near a field and a school – which angered residents and city officials – to an underground substation in the heart of Kendall Square. Boston Properties offered a discounted price for the property and substation shell in return for winning the right to an additional 800,000 square feet of development space aboveground.

The siting board said the agreement made it possible for Eversource to build the massive underground station for no more than it would have cost for a substation aboveground. “Thus, the city of Cambridge helped Eversource to secure the [underground site] without additional financial burden to Eversource’s customers relative to the Fulkerson Street location,” the board’s decision said. In another section of the decision the board praised the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority for its part in arranging the deal.

While the board hailed the agreement and plan for an underground substation, board member James M. Van Nostrand, chair of the Department of Public Utilities, cautioned other communities where electric substations may be proposed not to expect the same happy outcome. “I would not want people around the state to think, ‘We want what Cambridge got,’” Van Nostrand said.

Tepper agreed. “It will take partnership,” she said, adding that “not all [the cost] can end up on the utility bill.”

Ruling against MIT

The board approved the project at a hearing called to discuss its tentative decision, issued June 17. The tentative ruling sided with Eversource on the route for underground cable through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus, rejecting MIT’s request for a route that avoided Vassar Street.

The university had argued that the Eversource route went through the “heart” of the campus where there are already numerous important underground connections and that construction noise and disruption would affect students and researchers, even research animals. Eversource had shocked Eversource and Cambridge by proposing an alternate route a few weeks before hearings were to begin last fall.

The board ruled that the university’s proposal didn’t meet the requirement of being “clearly superior” to Eversource’s route. The city had supported Eversource, with public works commissioner Kathleen Watkins testifying that MIT’s plan was not “feasible.”

The decision does require Eversource to negotiate with MIT about “mitigation” procedures, with the city also represented. Watkins said at Thursday’s hearing that the three parties are already holding weekly meetings. If they can’t agree on a specific procedure, they can bring the dispute to the board, the decision said.

Outreach

Though the board chair praised Eversource’s outreach, a group of Hampshire Street residents who opposed running underground cables along Hampshire and Columbia streets asserted most of them didn’t know about the utility’s plan until relatively late in the process. After they denounced the utility route at a City Council meeting and politicians supported them, the utility chose a route that avoids the neighborhood. Eversource said information about the project was mailed to every address along preferred and alternate routes.

The board’s decisions can be appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court; opponents have 20 days to file. An MIT official previously said the university wouldn’t appeal any decision.

Eversource spokesperson William Hinkle said the utility will begin construction of the underground lines early next year “and we will be providing specific details about construction as the project progresses [through 2029].”