“Our job is to make sure the word gets out,” says Commander Jody Grady, chief staff officer at the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Area Master Station Atlantic Detachment Cutler (Cutler Base), "on a really bad day." The facility is responsible for maintaining reliable one‑way communications with the U.S. submarine fleet operating around the world. The transmitter uses a Very Low Frequency (VLF) signal that penetrates seawater down to the operating depth where submarines hide.
As a critical link in national security, the base is not permitted "down time," regardless of weather or other factors. Grady and other Navy officials were available to meet with the public on August 28 at the Rose Gaffney School in Machias to explain their plan to connect to the Bangor Hydro electric grid, allowing the existing diesel generators to be moved to a back‑up status.
The plan calls for a submarine cable to be buried five feet below the bottom of Machias Bay, from a point adjacent to Jasper Beach to a planned substation near the existing power plant, which is 52 years old. The Navy expects to reduce costs, eliminate a source of air pollution and increase reliability by installing the 6.7‑mile line. The line will operate at 34.5 kilovolts and have a peak capacity of 15 megawatts; however, officials are quick to observe that is a "worst‑case" demand, which includes power needed for de‑icing the antennas. Bangor Hydro, according to officials, has assured them that sufficient power is available at the Bucks Harbor substation.
According to a fact sheet prepared by the Naval Facilities Engineering Command and distributed at the meeting, "annual fuel savings" are projected to be approximately $3.9 million, allowing the project to pay for itself "in just over six years, even with no reduction in labor costs." Additionally, according to the same fact sheet, after the project is complete a study will be conducted to "determine future manpower needs to operate and maintain the existing diesel generator plant as a dedicated power supply backup."
"I'm not sure of that $3.9 million," said Elmer Harmon, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 2635. Harmon also questions Navy claims of improved reliability. "In the years I've been there," he added, "we've achieved a 99.999% reliability rating. Anyone from Washington County knows Bangor Hydro comes nowhere near that." According to Harmon, "This is about reducing staffing levels." He adds that the Navy made a similar proposal "in the middle '90s" that ended in a compromise: no commercial line, but a reduction from three controlmen on duty at all times, to two. The technical staff maintains and operates a power generation station that includes five diesel generators and provides power to the transmitter 24/7. According to Harmon, only one is online at any given time, "unless we're doing de‑icing, then we need two."
Navy spokesperson Thomas Kreidel of the Naval Facilities Engineering Command pointed out that Bangor Hydro estimates a 99.992% reliability figure from the Bucks Harbor Substation. The Navy's connection will not be subject to the local delivery outages caused by ice, downed poles and fallen tree limbs that disrupt residential delivery.
Kreidel provided the following statement regarding the projected savings: "The plant consumes approximately 1,420,000 gallons of diesel fuel annually costing $3,910,000, 34,000 gallons of lube oil costing $27,000 and routine maintenance parts and materials costing $275,000, for a total annual cost of $4,212,000. After the plant is converted to back‑up mode, those annual costs will reduce to approximately $43,000, $300 and $28,000, respectively, for a total of $63,300, while the estimated cost to purchase commercial power will yield an estimated net annual savings of approximately $2,248,700." Kreidel noted that this is "without consideration of any reduction in labor costs."
The lights of the Cutler base antennas can be seen from many hilltops around coastal Washington County and from far offshore, with the tallest towers at 1,000 feet. Work is planned for the winter months of either 2014B15 or 2015B16, and is expected to require about two weeks. Navy officials pointed out that it may not be necessary to place the usual 300‑foot wide trawl restrictions on the cable area, because of the planned burial depth; however, this could change if problems arise.
Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) representatives were at the meeting, including Resource Manager Trisha Cheney DeGraaf and scientist Denis‑Marc Nault; both were there to gather information. Rep. Katherine Cassidy also stopped by.
"I do have concerns with this," said DeGraaf, pointing out that the route chosen for the cable passes through "some of our most productive scallop beds," and that construction was set to be performed during the time the scallop fishery is open. She also expressed concern about the downstream "plume" caused by disruption to the seabed by the "hydroplow" utilized for burying the cable. Nault seconded this worry, noting that it could have an effect on salmon migration.
DeGraaf, who is responsible for helping to craft regulations regarding scallop fishing opening dates and localized closures, said that she would be looking for ways to minimize the economic impact on fishermen and to maintain the productivity of the fishery. "This could become part of our rotational management," she said, referring to regulatory methods aimed at preventing resource depletion through scheduled closure of specific areas. "I need to figure out how to allow the fishermen to harvest the area without conflicting with the construction."