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Case for power line weak, PSC experts say

A $1.3 billion power line across northern West Virginia won't help the state and probably won't cure the energy crunch, according to experts from the state Public Service Commission staff.

Two consultants and a PSC staff engineer urged the commission to reject the Allegheny Energy proposal in testimony and expert reports.

The two PSC consultants agreed that Allegheny's proposal is not "the most economical or cost-effective means" to cure potential northeast power outages.

A PSC staff engineer also concluded that Allegheny did not select the best and least environmentally damaging route for its proposed Trans-Allegheny Interstate Line, or TrAIL.

The PSC staff testimony mirrors arguments made by opponents of the TrAIL project, including citizen groups that have sprung up along the transmission line's 240-mile route.

Ronald L. Klein, an engineer working for two Morgantown-area groups, concluded that Allegheny wrongly wrote off possible alternatives to the new power line.

"[Allegheny's] application does not comprehensively list many alternatives that could ameliorate or obviate the need for the proposed TrAIL line," Klein said in his prepared testimony. "Nor does [the power company] evaluate the quantitative potential of many of those available alternatives to not only reduce the demand increases in and along the mid-Atlantic portion of the Eastern Seaboard, but also to eliminate the future forecast increases entirely."

Klein urged the PSC to force Allegheny to fully examine improving existing power lines, reducing electricity demand, building new power plants closer to the East Coast demand, and storing power in high-tech batteries for use during peak demand.

PSC staffers and power line opponents submitted thick stacks of written testimony and expert reports in response to Allegheny's application for commission approval for TrAIL. Allegheny has until Jan. 4 to reply.

Lawyers for all sides are spelling out their arguments in anticipation of the Jan. 9 start of formal PSC evidentiary hearings in what is one of the biggest and most controversial commission cases in years.

Allegheny, through a company called TrAIL Co., is seeking PSC approval to build the West Virginia portion of the 500-kilovolt line to carry electricity from southwestern Pennsylvania through West Virginia and into northern Virginia.

Power company officials say the line is needed to provide cheap and reliable power to big Eastern cities and their growing suburbs. But the project has drawn intense opposition from hundreds of West Virginians, who fear it will mar scenic views, lower their property values and otherwise damage rural communities.

Hundreds of residents turned out to oppose the project at five PSC public hearings in the affected area, which includes parts of Monongalia, Preston, Tucker, Grant, Hardy and Hampshire counties.

Commissioners must decide if the power line "will economically, adequately and reliably contribute to meeting the present and anticipated requirements for electric power of the customers served" and if it is "desirable for present and anticipated reliability of service for electric power for its service area or region."

The PSC also must decide if the project "will result in an acceptable balance between reasonable power needs and reasonable environmental factors."

William Lewis, an engineering consultant hired by PSC staff, testified that TrAIL will not help West Virginia power customers, because they aren't facing any serious reliability issues.

"West Virginia is not likely to experience any electric service reliability problems in the absence of TrAIL well into the foreseeable future," Lewis said.

Lewis said that alternatives to the new power line could help meet increasing need in eastern cities. Companies could build new power plants or improve existing transmission lines, he said.

But, Lewis said, those alternatives might only defer by several years the date by which TrAIL might be needed. Still, Lewis said, because Allegheny argues the line is needed by 2011, it should have to back up that claim more fully.

Another PSC consultant, economist Michel J. Ileo, concluded that Allegheny has inflated the potential power demands along the East Coast.

Ileo testified that Allegheny has not "documented as being appropriate" its power demand estimates. The estimates of increased power demand, Ileo said, vary "significantly from other demographic and economic forecasts for the geographic area," which show a slowing population growth.

James Ellars, a PSC staff engineer, found that one of the alternative routes that Allegheny dropped from consideration would have less environmental and community impacts than the one the company picked.

Ellars also found that Allegheny route planners missed numerous homes and other buildings when mapping the power line's possible impacts.

"Because of the inaccuracies relating to the preferred route, I am concerned that the data provided by [Allegheny] in its route report might not provide an accurate assessment of the true impact of each separate alternate route and how those alternate routes compare to one another," Ellars said.


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