NEW YORK — Over the next five or six years, if all goes according to plan, there should be enough electricity to provide plenty of power for every American.
But with all the generating capacity, will electricity actually reach everyone who needs it?
The answer lies in transmission lines - those long, saggy cables strung between ungainly steel towers. They're part of the electricity superhighway that sends kilowatts flowing from places that welcome power plants to those that don't. And, unsettlingly, these lines are becoming congested, pushed to their limits, close to burning out during peak periods.
"It's probably the most vulnerable part of the system, if not the most important part of the system, and the one that people pay the least amount of attention to," says Thomas Kuhn, president of Edison Electric Institute (EEI), a trade group in Washington.
But building new transmission lines to ease the strain is not an easy task. People who live near proposed corridors for new towers, often joined by local environmental groups, have become effective at delaying or rerouting new lines. Landowners complain about lost property values and question whether the lines cause health problems. To some environmentalists, the steel towers can be an eyesore, ruining a mountain trail.
The tensions have not gone unnoticed in Washington. Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) of Alaska, chairman of the Energy Committee, is considering provisions to speed the siting of transmission lines. It's not yet clear if he'll proceed because of the potential controversy over such legislation, Senate sources say.
The siting controversy is heating up even as the lines are increasingly used to transfer power among regions. In just five years, power sales from one region to another jumped from 25,000 transactions to more than 2 million, according to EEI.
"The system was never designed for that," says Mr. Kuhn.
But building new transmission lines just to move power from one part of the country to another is a sensitive issue, particularly among landowners. Indeed, local objections have forced many power companies, including American Electric Power (AEP) Co. in Columbus, Ohio, to alter their plans.
When AEP said in 1990 it wanted to build a major new line from West Virginia to western Virginia, it knew getting approval would be arduous. The new line would cross the Appalachian Trail several times, as well as the New River - a route that would require approval from two state regulatory commissions and three federal agencies.
But more than tangling with the bureaucracy, AEP was also fighting an aroused local populace. One key objection was that power transmitted over the new line would not be used locally, but sold for use as far away as eastern Virginia or North Carolina.
"The transmission line would ruin landscape and property values," says William Dougherty, president of FORCE (Friends of Regional Culture and Environment), the local group that sprang up to fight AEP's proposal.
Eleven years later, the company has shortened the route, eliminating some regulatory hurdles. Even FORCE has grudgingly accepted that something will be built. "Keeping it short will help," says Mr. Dougherty.
The process, though, has consumed more time and money than AEP expected. The plan had called for the line to be in place by 1998. Now AEP hopes to have the juice flowing by 2005 - at a cost of $283 million, up $83 million from the original price tag.
Meanwhile, to cope with rising demand, AEP has installed load-shedding equipment that will let it institute rotating blackouts to protect its system. "The lesson you learn is you have to keep pace with demand - look at California," says spokesman Todd Burns.
In fact, transmission capacity is a serious problem for California. As part of a utility bailout deal, the state may take over 32,000 miles of wire - even though some reports show as much as $1 billion may be needed to upgrade the lines.
In particular, five power bottlenecks need to be corrected, according to the California Independent System Operator (ISO). One example: At transmission lines between Los Banos and Gates (outside of Bakersfield), three 500,000-volt lines are constricted into two lines - the equivalent of making a three-lane highway into two lanes at rush hour. On both days last month when California experienced rotating blackouts, these lines were operating at capacity.
"When we took control of the system, it was one of our biggest issues," says Lisa Szot, an ISO spokeswoman.
In this case, environmental groups are not protesting. "It's fairly short and an area not likely to create a lot of disturbance except on some agricultural lands," says Rich Ferguson, director of energy programs for the Sierra Club, based in San Francisco. He says the club is not opposed to transmission lines per se, but looks at them on a project-by-project basis.
"We'd like to see better use of wind power in the Dakotas - and if that means more transmission lines to supply Chicago or Detroit, we might support it," he says.
Some states are net importers, relying on surrounding states for power.
That's the case with Wisconsin, which imports about 15 percent of its power during peak periods. Demand continues to grow at almost 5 percent annually in urban areas, says Larry Borgard, vice president for transmission at Wisconsin Public Service. Until new plants are built, electricity to meet that demand must flow over congested wires.
To prevent blackouts, WPS and Allete (formerly Minnesota Power) hope to upgrade the connection to Minnesota at a cost of $175 million. The company plans to complete the new line in 2004.
Wisconsin may be in the vanguard of electricity transmission. Last year, the local utilities spun off the transmission assets into a new company, American Transmission Co., which now controls 6,000 miles of wire and 500 substations. It's hoping to make money not only providing Wisconsin with power but also shuttling electricity from power generators in South Dakota to energy consumers in New York.
"It's up to us to make it a business," says Jose Delgado, the president. "If we're successful, it will show Congress and other utilities that divestiture should take place."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society