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State at a crossroads, PSC official says

This is Part 2 of a package of stories focusing on new power line projects in West Virginia. To review Part 1, see www.sundaygazettemail.com.

TUNNELTON — On a hot July evening, more than 100 people filled folding chairs and tables in the cafeteria at Tunnelton-Denver Elementary School.

Preston County farmers, housewives and retirees turned out to pepper Billy Jack Gregg, consumer advocate at the state Public Service Commission, about the huge power line proposed to run through their community.

Could the power company really take their land? Why can’t eastern states and cities build their own power plants, instead of seeking extension cords to tap into those in the Ohio Valley? Can the federal government really overrule West Virginia if state regulators turn down Allegheny Energy’s application?

Many West Virginians may soon be asking similar questions. Allegheny’s proposal may be just the first of many power line fights to come in West Virginia and surrounding states.

More transmission lines are in the works, and with them probably more power plants, according to utility reports and transmission grid planning studies. If West Virginians don’t like that version of their future, Gregg cautioned, now is the time to start speaking up.

“We’re at a crossroads,” Gregg said. “As long as there is a growing demand for electricity, they’re going to keep building power lines.”

Already, another major power line proposal is right behind Allegheny’s Trans-Allegheny Interstate Line, or TrAIL, in the planning and regulatory approval process.

In late June, grid managers at PJM Interconnection approved American Electric Power’s plan for a joint line with Allegheny. This 765-kilovolt-transmission line would run from the John Amos Power Plant near St. Albans to a substation northeast of Martinsburg.

That 250-mile project is part of a much larger, $3 billion, 550-mile line that would run to New Jersey.

AEP and Allegheny call this proposal PATH, for Potomac-Appalachian Transmission Highline.

The companies hope to get regulatory approvals in place by the end of 2008.

“AEP believes that electric transmission should be developed into our nation’s next interstate system,” AEP says in materials promoting PATH.

The AEP proposal is among the most recent transmission projects approved by PJM, which coordinates the electric grid for an area serving 51 million people in parts of 13 states and the District of Columbia.

Last week, PJM approved plans for Pepco Holdings Inc. to build a 230-mile transmission line from Virginia, across southern Maryland and Delaware, and into New Jersey.

Over the last seven years, PJM has authorized more than $7 billion in new transmission projects.

Utilities and grid managers are just getting started, according to government records, hearing testimony and PJM planning reports.

PJM is reviewing nearly a dozen other projects, including two power lines that would cut across West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle, records show.

“A number of other transmission additions remain under evaluation,” PJM recently disclosed.

For years, utilities and electric grid managers have complained that aging — and sometimes sparse — transmission lines can’t keep up with growing electricity demand.

Various government watchdogs have joined in the warnings.

Twenty years ago, in a 1987 report, the Congressional Research Service concluded that bulk power transmission lines in many parts of the country were already operating at or near capacity. Over the next 10 years, the Department of Energy expects line miles of high-voltage transmission to increase by 6 percent. During the same period, electricity demand is projected to increase by 20 percent.

In the mid-Atlantic region, grid manager PJM has been planning to deal with this problem through a little-known plan called Project Mountaineer.

Karl Pfirrmann, a regional PJM president, explained Project Mountaineer during a FERC conference in Washington, D.C., in May 2005. More power — perhaps as much as 5,000 megawatts — needs to be sent from west to east, he said. This would require two or more backbone 500-kilovolt to 765-kilovolt transmission lines stretching 550 to 900 miles “from Kentucky and West Virginia to eastern load centers stretching from Washington, D.C., to northern New Jersey.”

PJM’s goal is also to increase the use of coal from Appalachia, according to the organization’s planning documents.

Project Mountaineer, PJM says, would “significantly enhance the ability of coal-based resources to reach eastern markets.

“We pledge to work with each of the state economic development entities, the coal industry, as well as the utilities in this area who have committed to significant new investment in coal-based generation for this region,” Pfirrmann said.

TrAIL and PATH are publicly touted as aimed at simply increasing transmission capabilities. But PSC records indicate that TrAIL would also create new capacity to allow more coal-fired power plants.

Allegheny Energy gave the PSC an 11-page report prepared for the company by Tom Witt, director of West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business Research. The report’s purpose, Witt said, was to “address the economic impacts associated with the construction and operation of four” new coal-fired gasification power plants. Witt testified that these four plants could be built “as a result of the enhanced transmission capacity provided by TrAIL.”

Asked if Allegheny has plans for the four plants Witt discussed, Allegheny spokesman Allen Staggers said last week that the company has “no plans on the books.”

Across the country, not everyone is jumping at the idea of building more power lines.

The TrAIL project faces heavy opposition in both Pennsylvania and Virginia. In late May, the Arizona Corporation Commission unanimously rejected a proposal by Southern California Edison to build a 230-mile line between Arizona and California.

In Congress, Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., is leading an effort to repeal the 2005 law that gave federal officials authority to overturn state decisions on power line proposals. Reps. Alan Mollohan and Nick J. Rahall, both D-W.Va., have signed on as co-sponsors of Hinchey’s legislation.

Back in West Virginia, Billy Jack Gregg told Preston County residents that it’s not too late to stop — or at least re-route — the TrAIL line, or others that come down the pike.

Gregg already convinced the PSC to force Allegheny to study an alternative route that would divert TrAIL along existing power lines, and avoid areas south of Morgantown where much of the opposition is concentrated.

“It’s obvious that the existing electric transmission grid needs to be upgraded and rationalized,” Gregg said last week. “However, it’s also obvious that the public is not going to stand for a great increase in the number of new transmission rights of way.

“The only realistic way to accommodate these conflicting demands is to upgrade and reuse existing transmission rights of way to the extent possible,” Gregg said.

And Gregg said that if state residents don’t want more power lines crisscrossing their land, they have to push for other options.

Demand for energy will have to be slowed. Newer, cleaner plants will have to be built closer to the eastern population centers. New lines would have to be re-routed along existing transmission paths.

These options aren’t impossible, Gregg said. And a mass outcry could eventually sway decision-makers.

“It’s obvious that we’re not going to be able to build new power lines forever,” Gregg said.

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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