Proposed Trans-Superior Cable would hit Keweenaw Peninsula
By Katie Alvord
THUNDER BAY, ONT. -- As part of "bold new expansion plans"
announced this spring, an electrical utilities group in Canada hopes to lay a
power transmission cable across Lake Superior from Thunder Bay, Ontario, to the
A press release circulated by Northwest Energy Works, a group of six Ontario
utilities including Thunder Bay Hydro, says these plans call for "exporting
power from Thunder Bay to Pigeon River, Ontario, and then east under Lake
Superior to the Keweenaw Peninsula."
Lake Superior along the Keweenaw Peninsula's north
shore, photographed here in a view of Great Sand Bay near Eagle
Harbor, will be the destination of an underwater power
transmission cable if plans of an electrical utilities group in
Ontario, Canada, materialize. A projected petroleum coke power
plant in Thunder Bay, Ont., would produce the electricity, which
would reach the Keweenaw's north shore at a still undetermined
location. (File photo © 2001 by Michele Anderson.)
According to officials, this would be the first major high-voltage electrical
cable under Lake Superior. Smaller cables and pipelines already underlie the
Great Lakes for shorter distances in a number of locations.
The cross-lake cable would transmit electricity from a proposed 1120 megawatt
power plant in Thunder Bay. The plant, owned and operated by U.S.-based SynFuel
Technologies, would be fueled by petroleum coke, a byproduct of oil refining.
Officials hope to break ground this fall, and start generating power 18 to 24
months later. And they hope to have the trans-Superior cable installed before
the plant starts operating.
Plans for the plant hit a snag at the end of April, when SynFuel owners found
land taxes too high at the chosen site, on Fort William First Nation land just
outside Thunder Bay. Newspaper reports indicate SynFuel is looking for a
different location, although Fort William tribal leaders still hope the plant
can be built on their land; and the parties are negotiating.
The proposal comes as Ontario deregulates electricity markets province-wide.
As of May 1, 2002, Ontario power consumers can choose their suppliers; and the
province's hydroelectric generating interests are being sold off and privatized.
Deregulation has generated a surge in power plant construction proposals and
increased interest in exporting some of Canada's inexpensive energy to the
power-hungry United States.
"The market for generation is opening," said Larry Hebert, general
manager of Thunder Bay Hydro and leading spokesperson for the Northwest Energy
Cable will require new overhead lines
Hebert said the proposed 90-mile trans-Superior cable would enter the lake at
Pigeon River at the Ontario-Minnesota border, traverse the tip of Isle Royale,
then head straight to the Keweenaw Peninsula.
Once on land, electricity transmission would continue toward points south,
likely via high-voltage overhead power lines.
"The goal is to get down to the Michigan and Illinois markets,"
To reach these markets, new overhead power lines would likely be needed, said
Dave Valine, manager of substation engineering for Wisconsin Public Service,
which owns UPPCO (Upper Peninsula Power Company). Right now, the Upper Peninsula
doesn't have the electrical infrastructure to take that power and disperse it,
"If they're going to do this, they're going to have to build a lot of
overhead wires," he noted.
Bringing power to the Keweenaw Peninsula itself is not a goal, but Hebert
said the cable could distribute power to the region if there were a market. He
noted that the availability of additional inexpensive power could fuel more
economic development here.
"Both mining and logging take tremendous amounts of power, so if you
have cheap sources of it and plenty of it, then you can get that kind of
development," he said.
The exact location at which the underwater cable would hit the Keweenaw will
not be determined until the completion of engineering studies, Hebert added. At
whatever point the cable transitions from water to land, a transformer station
would be constructed. Hebert also expected that the cable would use direct
current (DC), and would require a conversion station to switch to alternating
current (AC) at whatever point the market for power commenced.
Much of the total Cdn$9 billion total project cost would pay for transmission
lines, which run about Cdn$1 million per mile over land and slightly more under
water. The current total does not include the cost of any property settlements
that may be necessary. The proposed power plant would cost about Cdn$1.9
Project developers hope to benefit by funding the project with Canadian
dollars and selling electricity for more valuable U.S. dollars. Currently one
dollar U.S. is worth about $1.50 Canadian.
Army Corps, DEQ permits needed
Gaining the necessary permits for this project will take time, Hebert said.
"Laying the cable is probably the easiest part," he added.
Hebert also expects an easier time with permitting in Michigan than in other
"Michigan officials seem to be more transmission-friendly than either
Wisconsin or Minnesota at this time," he explained.
In Michigan, the project would require approval from both the U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
From the Corps, the project would need a permit issued pursuant to the Rivers
and Harbors Act of 1899, Section 10, explained Rich Gutleber of the agency's
Marquette office. A wetland permit may also be necessary, he added.
"If wetlands are affected onshore, they'd be required to get a permit
under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act," Gutleber explained.
He noted the Corps would issue or deny applicable permits based on a number
"We would be looking at the impact to the public's use of these
waterways," Gutleber said. "Just laying a cable on the bottom is
pretty innocuous in terms of impacts."
The biggest concern, he added, would be the possibility of anchors snagging
the cable. If the cable is laid in a trench, then concerns about disturbing
habitat are raised.
From the DEQ, the project would need a permit to lay cable on Great Lakes
bottomland, according to Greg Merricle of the Permit Consolidation Unit of the
DEQ Land and Water Management Division in Lansing.
Merricle explained that when his office receives an application, they issue a
public notice seeking comments from interested agencies, organizations and
residents near the proposed project.
"Where the cable comes up onto land, we would notify people on that
property and people on either side of that property, but only on the water, not
on any backlots," he said.
The projected cable could come up on land on private property
such as this private beach area along the north shore of the
Keweenaw Peninsula. The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)
would issue a public notice seeking comments from interested
agencies, organizations and residents near the proposed project.
(File photo © Michele Anderson)
The public notice would allow 20 days for response, and would not lead to a
public hearing unless significant concerns were raised by those initially
With such projects, Merricle said, the DEQ looks for environmental effects
such as impacts on bottomland, shoreline and wetlands.
"There are numerous pipelines going that are laying on bottomland
throughout the state," he said.
Merricle used the term "pipeline" to refer to the rigid casing or
pipeline that typically is used to protect electrical cable laid on Great Lakes
bottomlands. He noted his office receives about 10 applications per year to lay
such electrical cable pipelines underwater in Michigan, mostly from the mainland
to islands in the Great Lakes.
Jennifer Nalbone of Great Lakes United said laying cable across whole lakes
hasn't been done much in the Great Lakes.
"We have a long history of going around the lakes," she stated.
Nalbone and others have concerns about environmental impacts of cables laid
under the Great Lakes.
"Of particular concern to the lake ecosystem is that the cables would
have to be buried wherever they might be subject to ice scour," she
explained. "In Lake Superior, that would most likely be necessary for the
shallow coastal portions of the lake crossing."
Digging trenches for the cable might affect water quality, marine archeology
and fish habitat. It could also stress fish populations and/or contribute to
fish advisories, disturb contaminated sediments and possibly dig up toxic hot
spots under the lake -- depending on the location. In addition, at least one
review has suggested the cable could affect electronic navigation instruments.
Great Lakes United would like to see all the Great Lakes closed to further
utility transmission lines. (See editor's notes: #1.)
Lake Superior Alliance (LSA) members also see potential problems with the
LSA's Bob Olsgard reported everyone in that organization is very concerned
about this proposal.
"The construction of high-voltage transmission infrastructure to deliver
electric power to places that right now don't get it raises the specter of
increased habitat destruction and fragmentation," Olsgard said.
"Remote communities all across the north -- from the Keweenaw to Northern
Ontario -- could be making better, cleaner choices for renewable energy,
providing power and yes, a few jobs -- locally, where they will do the most
good." (See editor's notes: #2.)
Steve Scott, the Lake Superior unit manager of the DNR's fish division, based
in Newbury, said he wasn't sure whether there might be productivity losses to
fisheries as a result of the cable itself.
"As far as these high voltage cables go, we do have a number of them
around the Great Lakes already," he said. "There's a pretty big one at
the Mackinac Bridge. That one's been in place for a number of years and there
haven't been any problems to speak of."
However, Scott did say he'd like to see more studies on potential fish
"Personally, my bigger concern is the power plant that's supposed to go
along with that [the cable]," Scott added. "It's not too far from
being directly upwind from Isle Royale," he pointed out.
The projected electric cable would traverse the tip of Isle
Royale, which lies between Thunder Bay, Ont., and the Keweenaw
Peninsula. This photo of islands along the north shore of Isle
Royale was taken from Todd Harbor, looking in the direction of
Thunder Bay. (Photo © July 1998 Janet Marr. Reprinted with
Power plant impacts
The petroleum coke plant proposed for Thunder Bay is the largest of several
commercial power generation proposals made in conjunction with Ontario's
deregulation, according to a recent report in LSA's newsletter, Superior
Vision. With its 1120-megawatt capacity, the petroleum coke plant will about
double the Thunder Bay region's power supply. (See editor's
The plant will be built in three stages. It will begin generating power at
120 megawatts, then add another 500 megawatts in each of two later stages to
reach its full proposed capacity. How far the project goes will depend upon
market demand, officials said.
In addition to petroleum coke, which will come from Alberta, the plant might
burn wastes such as sludge from sewage treatment plants.
In Ontario, project proponents are touting lower energy costs, creation of
thousands of jobs, and the possibility of increased mining development as the
project provides more access to electricity in remote areas of the province. The
Chronicle-Journal newspaper of Thunder Bay also suggested the proposed
power plant might enable construction of a smelter in that city.
Proponents claim environmental benefits for the power generation plant. Media
materials circulated by Northwest Energy Works state, "the new generation
facility would burn Petroleum Coke which is more environmentally friendly."
However, Patricio Silva, Midwest Activities Coordinator for the Natural
Resources Defense Council (NRDC), expressed NRDC's concern about new coal-fired
power plant projects in Thunder Bay and across Canada. Silva noted the projected
Thunder Bay plant would still emit some amount of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen,
particulate matter and carbon dioxide.
The first two pollutants contribute to acid rain; particulates have been
implicated in heart and lung disease; and carbon dioxide is a major greenhouse
"While not nearly as polluting as a traditional pulverized coal electric
generating facility, [the plant] would be no gem," Silva observed.
- Read more about the electric cable under Lake Superior
on Great Lakes United's Habitat Watch.
- See "Region
Looks to More Power for More Jobs" in the online version of
the Spring 2002 issue of Superior Vision, the Lake Superior
newsletter (p. 10 of pdf file).
Read more about the author of this article, Katie
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