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Cheap power to Northeast US: a mixed blessing

At least eight transmission lines are planned to connect the region with Midwestern coal plants.

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"We can't have huge transmission power lines cutting through existing neighborhoods or over huge swaths of open space, especially historically significant land," Rep. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia said in a recent statement. "Every area of the country could confront the same controversy we're seeing."

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Mr. Wolf is working with a bipartisan group to reverse provisions in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that allow the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to preempt local and state zoning rules by creating two "national corridors," zones for transmission lines that encompass major chunks of 11 states. Both the mid-Atlantic and Southwest corridors (crossing Southern California and Arizona) are still officially "draft" proposals set to be finalized next month.

In fact, company officials say the lines move mostly along existing right-of-ways for power lines and that they will work through state regulators – not ram the line through using a federal mandate.

"We plan to go through the state process to address local concerns and to use mainly existing corridors," says Paul Koonce, CEO of Dominion Energy, the transmission and pipeline division of Dominion Resources. "We want to minimize any impact and we will do that."

But neither he nor other Dominion officials will rule out using the new national corridor as a backup option should Virginia deny it a permit.

While the company, federal officials, and regional transmission authorities are pushing a wider plan for the Northeast that includes at least seven other lines as a way to improve reliability, expert opinion is split on the matter.

One recent study by PJM Interconnection, which oversees power trading and grid reliability across all or parts of 13 states from the Midwest to the East Coast, found that consumers pay an extra $2 billion or more because of grid congestion.

Others, however, say the new lines will mean vast profits for power companies that can sell far more cheap coal power into high-price areas on the East Coast like New York City and Long Island.

"Basically, the folks with an economic interest in more transmission are promoting this concept that it will improve reliability," says George Loehr, vice chairman of the executive committee of the New York State Reliability Council, a nonprofit that works closely with the New York Independent System Operator to ensure grid reliability. But reliability depends on daily operating standards and better oversight, not new lines, he says.

"You can take any system and add transmission to it and you're not going to make the system more reliable just by doing that," he says.

Is an interconnected grid weaker?

It's also possible for transmission lines to make the grid less reliable, some experts say.

"The reliability problem is a subtle one because the larger, more interconnected the system is, the more vulnerable you are to cascading blackouts and failures," says Hyde Merrill, a transmission expert who has analyzed grid data for the Piedmont Environmental Council, a group opposing the Dominion power line.

PJM, which has applied to the Energy Department for three new corridors for proposed power lines, rejects that notion.

"We can order transmission owners to build lines, but we cannot order generation to be built," says Ray Dotter, a PJM spokesman. "So if we are seeing overloads developing, the only thing we can order is power lines. Our primary mission is to keep lights on. So you need to do what you need to do if generation is not available locally."

Federal officials say the fact that power companies may make more money off such projects is beside the point.

"I reject the notion that this is somehow inappropriate," adds Kevin Kolevar, director of the Energy Department's Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability. "The point here is to provide a balance to the system."

But for Cameron Eaton, a Delaplane, Va., resident who teaches horseback riding, having a Dominion Resources power line run through her 100-acre farm raises legal liability questions that would wreck her business, she says.

"This is a gem of our country," she says. "It's just a crying shame that instead of residents and visitors looking out across a valley not much different from Civil War times, they might be staring at a bunch of power lines instead."

"It may look like I'm just one little spot on many miles of power lines," she adds. "But I'm not going to go down easy."

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