A new federal proposal to help electricity flow more freely could help the energy-choked East Coast. But it could also infuriate landowners, who have traditionally gotten their way in fights against utilities in Delaware.
U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman last week named Delaware as part of his proposed eastern National Interest Electric Transmission Corridor. It would run from New York to Virginia, and west to Ohio. A second corridor would run through California, Arizona and Nevada.
Those areas are experiencing bottlenecks in the aging electricity grid, and are in need of new transmission lines, Bodman said.
Under the plan, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission could invoke eminent domain against a landowner who seeks to block a transmission line cutting across his property. That could occur if a state fails to issue a permit for the project and an environmental assessment shows there’s no better alternative than to use that property.
The current grid “is aging and stressed. Simply put, it is no longer adequate to meet the demands of the 21st century,” Bodman said Thursday in Washington. He also said the government would take a more aggressive role in energy projects opposed by local groups. “The parochial interests that shaped energy policy in the 20th century will no longer work.”
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 gave Bodman’s office the ability to create the corridors.
But one Delaware observer was doubtful that it would be so easy for the federal government to seize private property for transmission lines.
If approved, it could be years before the right of federal eminent domain can be enforced, because it’s likely to end up in court, said John Byrne, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Delaware.
“This is a law that tilts the balance in favor of the federal government. The question is whether the courts will go along,” Byrne said.
In Delaware, landowners, not the state, have had final say as to whether utility lines go through their property, said Bruce Burcat, executive director of the state Public Service Commission. Utilities have sometimes needed to choose another path when Delaware landowners said no, Burcat said.
Last May, Pepco Holdings, the parent company of Delmarva Power, unveiled its proposed $1.2 billion, 550-kilovolt transmission line, running 230 miles. It would start in Possum Point, Va., snake through southern Maryland, run across the Chesapeake Bay to Indian River, head north through Delaware and go across the Delaware River, finishing in Salem, N.J. Pepco dubbed the project the Mid-Atlantic Power Pathway.
But PJM Interconnection, which manages the power supply system in 13 states, including Delaware, did not include the project in its 15-year list of approved transmission upgrades. The project, PJM determined, has a high cost and low power transmission capability compared to other options.
The more likely threat to Delaware landowners is some project that has yet to be proposed, Byrne said.
The idea of the federal government overruling a landowner’s decision sent a shiver up the spine of one prominent state official.
Eminent domain “should be exercised with extreme caution, and not simply on behalf of someone who wants to make a buck. It should only be for the genuine needs of the area,” said Sen. Harris B. McDowell III, D-Wilmington North, an outspoken advocate of conservation and renewable energy.
But Gene Ruane, a Dover councilman, said that in a state that gets so much of its power from elsewhere, local property owners must be ready to make way for the common good. He noted that Dover residents, who get their electricity from the city, are seeing higher bills because of heavy transmission charges.
It would be better, Ruane said, if the property issues could be worked out at the state or local level. But ultimately, “You can’t put up a wall and say, ‘You’re not going to run the line here,’ ” he said.
Bodman presented the transmission corridors in draft form on Thursday. Authorities will hold public meetings on the corridors in San Diego, Arlington, Va., and New York City.
Once the 60-day comment period ends, the law calls for state regulators to try to strike an agreement on where new lines should be built.
The decision is a confirmation of the region’s need for new transmission capabilities, said Ray Dotter, spokesman for PJM Interconnection.
Building a major power line is challenging, he said. “Most of us aren’t real happy to have one in our backyard, There tends to be opposition to building lines, even if they directly benefit us.”
In a recent report on Delaware’s energy future, a state consultant expressed skepticism that the Mid-Atlantic Power Pathway would be built soon, or that, if built, would be a cost-effective solution to the state’s energy needs.
But Delmarva said the Mid-Atlantic Power Pathway is well-suited to the establishment of the transmission corridor. Merrie Street, spokeswoman for Delmarva, said that “we have the plans in place to get those transmission lines up and operating.”
More likely to be built, Dotter said, are two major lines that do not cut through Delaware. One runs from West Virginia to close to the western edge of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. The other runs from northern Pennsylvania to northern New Jersey.
Byrne said other trends could make the need for transmission lines less relevant.
“While I think the transmission upgrade is generally an important and appropriate matter to be considered, my best guess in the energy field is that decentralized energy is going to dramatically change the way we look at energy supply,” Byrne said.
Similar to how computers became laptops and telephones became cell phones, energy sources will become smaller and more localized, Byrne said. Solar, geothermal and wind power will become more important in this new reality, Byrne said.
“That’s where we’re going to be going,” Byrne said.
ELECTRIC PLAN COMMENTS
To submit written comments on the draft National Corridor designations, you can go to http://nietc.anl.gov/involve/comments/index.cfm
Or you can send comments through the mail to:
The Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, OE-20, U.S. Department of Energy, 1000 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, DC 20585.
Your comments must be marked “Attn: Docket No. 2007-OE-01,” to specify that you are referring to the East Coast, not the one proposed for the West Coast.
For information on the public meetings in Washington and New York, see: www.energetics.com/NIETCpublicmeetings/
The 60-day comment period began last week.
By Aaron Nathans
The News Journal
29 April 2007
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