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Power line was to get more coal, witness tells PSC

Plans for a $1.3 billion power line across northern West Virginia were hatched as a scheme to funnel more coal-fired electricity into eastern cities, the state Public Service Commission heard Wednesday.

During the first day of formal PSC hearings, critics of the Allegheny Energy plan tried to chip away at the company's justification for the 500-kilovolt-transmission line.

Electrical grid managers and Allegheny Energy came up with the Trans-Allegheny Interstate Line, or TrAIL, to respond to federal government questions about how to "get more coal" out of West Virginia and other Appalachian states, the PSC learned.

Utility planners did not consider other fuels, or adding more power plants closer to the growing electrical demand in Washington, D.C., and its growing suburbs, commissioners were told.

"We are not able to study generation solutions. We study transmission solutions," testified Steven Herling, a vice president of PJM Interconnection, a private organization that manages the mid-Atlantic energy grid.

Herling testified for Allegheny Energy during Wednesday's opening day of formal PSC evidentiary hearings on TrAIL.

The 240-mile transmission line would carry electricity from western Pennsylvania, across West Virginia and into Virginia.

Allegheny wants the PSC to approve the 114 miles of the line that run through West Virginia. TrAIL would enter the state north of Morgantown, and run south and east through Monongalia, Preston and Tucker counties to Mount Storm in Grant County. Then, it would turn east through Hardy and Hampshire counties before entering Virginia.

Allegheny officials say the line is needed to provide cheap and reliable power to big Eastern cities and their growing suburbs. Aging infrastructure, combined with increasing power demand, could cause rolling blackouts by 2011 that would extend into eastern West Virginia, power company officials say.

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.

The PSC already held a series of public-comment periods last year, and has set aside 10 days in January - including several Saturday sessions - for formal testimony.

Commissioners Jon McKinney and Ed Staats are hearing the case. PSC Chairman Michael Albert, appointed last year by Gov. Joe Manchin, recused himself. Albert said he did some work on the project for Allegheny Energy before leaving the Jackson Kelly law firm for the PSC post.

Under PSC rules, all parties submitted prepared direct testimony in writing prior to the hearing. So at the hearing, lawyers are limited to cross-examining the other parties' witnesses.

But numerous residents along the power line route have intervened, as have the Sierra Club, a coalition of industrial energy users, and a Buddhist monastery located along the Hampshire County part of the line.

On Wednesday, commissioners barely got through one of the four witnesses they had scheduled for the day.

Most of the day was spent on cross-examination of Herling, who helped prepare PJM planning reports that supported Allegheny's proposal for the power line.

Herling testified that Allegheny's plan drew out of a PJM initiative called Project Mountaineer, which aimed to increase the amount of coal-fired electricity shipped out of the Ohio Valley and Midwest into East Coast cities.

Herling said that PJM came up with Project Mountaineer in response to questions from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission about how to increase the transmission of coal-based power. Allegheny, in turn, came up with TrAIL as a way to implement PJM's Project Mountaineer, Herling said.

"It's really a matter of balancing generation in the west and the east, and our big problem is we don't have enough generation in the east," Herling testified.

Questioned by Sierra Club lawyer Bill DePaulo, Herling said that PJM's studies to not weigh the possible environmental negatives from various power sources, such as greenhouse gas emissions from coal burning.

"We don't make any judgment about what generation will ultimately serve the load," Herling said.

Thomas Hildebrand, a citizen who intervened in the case, questioned Herling about why adding more power plants closer to the increased demand wasn't an alternative to building the TrAIL line.

Herling said that PJM's planning process is set up to focus on improving power transmission infrastructure, not studying the location of new generation plants.

"You're kind of on a line that we're not supposed to cross," Herling told Hildebrand.

Herling made his point even more clear under re-direct questioning from Allegheny lawyer Chris Callas. "We do not have an ability to order local generation capacity to deal with a transmission issue."


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