Cheap power to Northeast US: a mixed blessing

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

A major move to boost grid capacity is under way to bring more cheap coal-fired electricity to the high-cost Northeast. New transmission lines could lower utility bills for millions of consumers and avert blackouts that sometimes hobble the region.

At least eight lines, stretching some 2,000 miles through six states at an estimated cost of more than $9 billion, are under active consideration or have been formally proposed. But the plan faces rising resistance.

The move would send high-voltage wires and towers up to 200-feet high through some of the most scenic areas of the mid-Atlantic states, where they could conflict with views of national parks, dedicated conservation easements, and Civil War and other historic sites, It would change the Northeast's energy mix, boosting its reliance on coal-fired energy while undercutting state efforts to move to renewable power and cut greenhouse-gas emissions, critics say.

And for the first time, final say on these projects would lie not with the states, which have often balked at siting transmission lines, but with the US Department of Energy, which supports the idea. Two weeks ago, it unveiled its plan for "national corridors" for power lines to improve reliability and reduce grid "congestion."

"These draft [corridor] designations set us on the path to modernize our constrained and congested electric power infrastructure," Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said in a statement at the April 26 unveiling of the corridors.

But critics say profits – not reliability – are the driving factor behind these projects.

"This is really all about transferring inexpensive coal power into areas of the country that have higher-priced electricity," says Mark Brownstein, a managing director in the climate and air program at New York-based Environmental Defense. "These parts of the country have taken a stand to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.... So these lines become pipelines that undo policy positions that the Northeast has taken."

In New York, regulators are already wrestling with a proposal to build a 190-mile power line, 73 miles of it through the valley of the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River, a unit of the National Park Service. In Virginia, last Friday, another test case for these transmission lines fell into the laps of state regulators now reviewing a proposal by a division of Dominion Resources. The Richmond-based company, one of the nation's largest utilities, wants to build a 60-mile segment of a 330 mile-long line that would link West Virginia and Pennsylvania grids more closely to Virginia's. The new line could ease congestion when one region is trying to import more electricity than current lines can handle.

Current transmission lines jammed

With Midwest-to-East-Coast transmission lines often full during peak periods, power companies can't bring in all the cheap coal-fired power they would like from the Midwest, an Energy Department study found last year. The new lines would also support the expansion of coal power by providing a new market for approximately 6,700 megawatts of electricity from coal-fired power plants expected to come online by 2012 in western Pennsylvania, western Maryland, Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia, the study said. If its newly proposed line isn’t built to bring in some of that power, Dominion warns that “rolling blackouts” could result.

But local criticism is building quickly. While Dominion's new proposal is being evaluated, recent past proposals would have cut swaths across the Appalachian Trail, narrowly skirting or going through 11 existing historic districts, one National Historic Landmark, 19 state and National Historic Sites and seven Civil War battlefields, including Manassas, Monocacy, Cedar Creek, according to the Civil War Preservation Trust.

"Our biggest concern is the likely possibility that these electric lines will be developed within the park viewshed," says Bryan Faehner, a spokesman for the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit group based in Washington. "It degrades the experience of park visitors who are going to places to be inspired, to know what makes our country what it is today – and then look across a national historic site and see a big power line."

The current plan would affect about 100,000 acres of land protected by conservation easements, opponents estimate. Although much of the line follows an existing corridor, critics say the new line's much taller towers – at least 120 feet high – would stick out above the tree line and could be visible from long stretches of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.

"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."

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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