Demands collide in power-grid plan

As needs rise, the U.S. wants more say. Critics ask: Why not conserve?

Posted: July 15, 2007

Deep below a nondescript building in Montgomery County, on a screen as big as a highway billboard, an array of charts and lines maps the minute-by-minute flow of electricity across the regional grid.

On the hottest summer days, when the ravenous power needs of the grid's 51 million customers in 13 states and the District of Columbia peak, green print on the board might change to yellow, then orange, then - uh-oh! - red. It means the lines are congested; power can't get through.

One of the solutions industry supports is simple: Build more transmission lines.

After mapping areas of "critical" congestion in the country, the Department of Energy has proposed designating a swath of land from metropolitan New York through northern Virginia - including all of New Jersey and more than half of Pennsylvania - as a corridor of "national interest."

Currently, states decide whether and where transmission lines can be built. With the new designation, federal officials could, in certain situations, overrule the states.

The plan has already sparked cries of protest from citizens, state governments and activists, many of whom worry that the move would discourage creative conservation and alternative fuels at a time when both should be a top priority.

"I really think it's very problematic," said William Moomaw, director of the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy at Tufts University. "It leads us back in a direction that is not going to help us address climate change."

Without the lines, and with demand for electricity increasing at a steady 1.8 percent a year, customers will pay more for power in the short term and be subject to outages as soon as 2012, according to PJM Interconnection, the company that operates the grid.

"As the economy grows and production grows, it would be very difficult to stop power from growing," said Michael J. Kormos, PJM's senior vice president for reliability services.

Critics say the proposal undermines everything energy conservationists are calling for, everything land and historic preservationists have worked for.

"Frankenstein towers" is the epithet some have coined for the 160-foot-tall structures that would carry the high-capacity lines along rights-of-way as wide as 200 feet. "A scar on the land to honor greed," testified a councilman from the small New York town of Hamptonburgh at one of the public hearings on the corridor designation.

Those hearings drew several hundred people. In addition, the department received more than 1,700 written and electronic submissions before the public-comment period ended this month.

A spokesman said that there was no timetable for the decision, but that it would be a matter of months, not weeks.

Part of the problem, as critics see it, is that the area proposed defies the usual image of a "corridor." It's more of a massive blob - encompassing 100,000 square miles in eight states. Gov. Rendell has criticized the swath as "so expansive it is meaningless."

Mark Whitenton, of the Energy Department's electricity delivery and energy reliability office, said officials "didn't want to be in a position of even appearing to promote any particular line or proposal."

But with such a large area defined - and not, so far, subject to environmental or historic review - critics fear that any new lines, like the electricity itself, would take the path of least resistance. Power companies would seek routes in open, undeveloped areas, they believe.

Many of those spots are already spoken for. Various groups have amassed lengthy lists of the lands they feel are at risk: thousands of acres of state forests, thousands of farms that have already been protected from development, hundreds of bucolic villages, even national parks.

"Without a doubt, some pretty significant, possibly nationally significant, places are going to be in that path," said Adrian Fine, director of the Northeast field office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Alongside the river

About 150 miles north of the underground power board, in a picturesque area along the upper Delaware River, is an area that illustrates critics' worst fears.

More than a year ago, New York Regional Interconnect Inc., an energy group, proposed a 190-mile transmission line from Utica to Orange County, outside New York City.

When the first maps came out, conservation and historic groups were aghast at some of the possible routes outlined. Among other sensitive areas, one went through the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational Area. Maps showed one possible stretch along four miles of a ridgetop, another along 73 miles of pristine riverbank.

"There's nothing wild or scenic about a massive power line running alongside one of the Northeast's best-loved rivers," said American Rivers president Rebecca Wodder. In April, her group designated the Upper Delaware one of the nation's most endangered rivers.

On Friday, Interconnect's project manager, Bill May, said new maps, to be submitted to the state in September, show the route "well outside the park."

For most of its journey, he said, the line takes the preferred path: corridors along or over existing utilities, such as other power lines or pipelines.

"This is a national issue," May said, "where we have to figure out a way to share the planet."

Several more lines that could be affected by the corridor designation have been proposed.

One would stretch 240 miles from southwestern Pennsylvania to Virginia, possibly through scenic parts of the Shenandoah Valley and within the "viewshed" of Civil War battlefields and other sensitive areas.

In June, the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated its own corridor - all of the historical places within the proposed electric transmission corridor, including what it called "some of the most historic landscapes in America" - and added them to its annual list of America's most endangered historic places.

Price of congestion

In a way, the issue says much about life in the United States today.

Homes are getting ever bigger, as are their power needs. People have plasma TVs, cordless phones, banks of computers, and other sophisticated electronics that either require charging or, even when turned off, a dribble of electricity just to keep them primed for use.

PJM, like the wizard behind the curtain in Oz, is continually directing some power plants to rev up, others to slow down. The idea is to get power from the cheapest sources (Western coal plants, usually) to areas with the greatest need (Eastern cities).

But when power lines are bottlenecked - like gridlock on highways or a blockage in plumbing - options are limited. The annual price of congestion, said Kormos, the PJM senior vice president, can reach $1.5 billion because PJM must buy power from more expensive sources, such as natural gas.

By 2012, money won't be enough, Kormos said. He said the result could be "rotating blackouts" across the region.

Environmentalists say they don't want coal power from the West because of its emissions.

More transmission lines, said Cinda Wildbuesser of the National Parks Conservation Association, would be "essentially enormous cords to some of the country's dirtiest coal-burning power plants."

With the prevailing westerly winds, "we would basically import the electricity, and the pollution would follow," said Moomaw, the Tufts expert.

Kormos said that consumption would have to decrease 2 percent a year, compounded annually, to offset rising demand. "What would you do in your home?"

Moomaw and others, however, say there are solutions. He wants to see more solar-power arrays on the East's big-roof buildings, in essence "letting nature do the transmission."

The Piedmont Environmental Council recently commissioned an energy-use study that showed Virginia could reduce its energy consumption by 10 percent, and shave 17 percent off peak-demand loads, simply by incorporating current technology and conservation techniques.

"We're not talking about Star Wars technology," said Piedmont spokesman Bob Lazaro. "We're talking about doing commonsense things."

Some as easy as turning off the lights.


 

Grid corridor pros and cons and some potential projects are at


Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com.

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