Pa. community’s fight against electric lines shows tensions coming with push toward a clean energy future
Barron Shaw’s family has been selling fruit from its orchard that spans the Pennsylvania-Maryland border for more than a century.
His ties to the land go back even farther.
“My family ancestors built this house on the hill here in 1862 during the Civil War,” he said while walking around his orchard recently. “So we have quite deep roots in the land here.”
So he was alarmed when he learned in 2017 that a company called Transource wanted to build a new electric transmission line through his property. The planned route would have cut through Shaw’s stands of peach trees.
But his big concern was that his orchards increasingly rely on customers who come to pick their own fruit.
“They don’t just come here because we have great food – which we do – but they come here because it’s beautiful,” Shaw said. “And you know what, no matter how you dress up the power line, it’s never going to be beautiful.”
Shaw joined a group of landowners to fight the project. They settled with Transource in 2019, agreeing to drop opposition if the company used nearby existing infrastructure to string new lines. The company kept a plan to build new lines about 60 miles away, in Franklin County.
Earlier this year, Pennsylvania’s utility regulator denied the entire project, saying Transource couldn’t justify a need and that the project gave little to no benefit to Pennsylvanians.
But Shaw still worries.
“You can see that that problem is going to be played out in spades on a national level,” he said.
That’s because President Joe Biden wants the country to have electricity with no carbon dioxide emissions by 2035.
To reach that, the country would need to more than double the power infrastructure it has now in the next decade, according to a Princeton University study.
Congress is set to vote soon on a bill that could help with that buildout.
What happened with the Transource project in southern York and Franklin counties is a sign of the tensions the country will face as some push for a transition to a clean energy future.
Transource would have built less than 50 miles of new lines to carry cheaper power from energy-rich Pennsylvania to high demand areas around Washington D.C.
Transource is appealing the project’s denial and said the advantages of more transmission aren’t confined to geographical boundaries.
“Customer-driven improvement projects in one area of the grid can benefit customers in another part of the regional electric grid,” Transource director Todd Burns said. “For example, recent improvements made in Indiana and Westmoreland counties, more than 100 miles away, improved how the grid operates in York County.”
For the U.S. to create a carbon-free electric network, it would need much larger projects. The best places to generate renewables in the U.S. are generally far away from where most people live, so the electricity will have to move to reach people somehow.
Destenie Nock, who teaches engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, gets why people don’t want transmission lines running through their backyards.
They aren’t the common, wooden telephone poles that run along many roads and connect to homes. Transmission lines are made up of high-voltage wires strung between towers more than 100 feet tall. Above-ground lines make buzzing or hissing noises and can be ugly.
“They’re not the sexy part of energy transition,” she said. “The wind and the solar is the sexy part and then transmission is kind of like that third cousin you brought to the party because…you don’t want to feel bad about leaving them out.”
But, to follow Nock’s cousin analogy, more cousins means more hands to carry all the party supplies inside. More transmission will help carry more electricity.
“What a lot of people forget is that those transmission lines are vital for the entire grid to operate,” Nock said.
Transmission lines are like a highway for electricity, according to Ben Kroposki, who leads the Power Systems Engineering Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.
He compares the east coast’s I-95 to I-81, which crosses through central Pennsylvania. I-95 is always packed, because a lot more people drive on it.
To meet the country’s goals to lower greenhouse gas emissions that accelerate climate change, people will need more carbon-free electricity to do things like power and heat their homes and charge electric cars. So adding more lanes to those power highways, and building some new ones, is going to be crucial.
And if they’re built, they will have to cross some communities.
On top of people fighting power lines near them, Kroposki said there are many policy barriers, from states to counties to utilities.
Entities like Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission or county governments don’t have to look at the national picture or climate goals when making their decisions. It can boil down to, do the people I serve need this?
At this very minute, the answer could be no.
“Our systems work and the lights are on in your house, so it must be working,” Kroposki said.
But, he added it can take 10 years to build a new line, from proposal to construction. So we need to plan now for what we want in the future.
PJM, the regional electric grid operator that serves 13 states, including Pennsylvania, is predicting a 0.2% growth per year in electricity demand, which it doesn’t expect would trigger a need for expanded transmission.
But in a statement, PJM said the development of new renewable resources could require the new transmission. PJM said it is working to make sure it can plan well for such a system.
There are three big problems with the electric industry, that Rob Gramlich calls the “three Ps:” planning, permitting, and paying.
Gramlich is the president of Grid Strategies, which works to bring more renewable energy onto the power grid.
The federal infrastructure bill awaiting a vote in the House aims to smooth those problems. It would give $65 billion for power infrastructure, though only $2.5 billion would go directly to fund new power line construction.
“Maybe those bills do 10% of the job,” Gramlich said. “I wish it was more. That’s a very helpful 10% and maybe it gets us going and maybe we get some momentum out of it.”
Gramlich said the “Build Back Better” bill in the U.S. House, however, “provides a lot of financial support for large scale transmission, and complements the bipartisan Senate bill’s policy provisions.” He said it includes a tax credit and $8 billion in loans and grants “for regionally significant transmission lines.”
The infrastructure bill and other measures pending in Congress could also give federal regulators more authority over where to put power lines, possibly overruling states.
Gramlich said he thinks that power would rarely be used, but it could encourage cooperation.
“If they can just say hell no, my state doesn’t like it or benefit from it, even if half the country does benefit from it, currently the process ends there,” Gramlich said. “But if there’s a federal sort of review process, then the process hopefully keeps going and people figure out an acceptable solution.”
That may be something like the compromise Barron Shaw’s group reached with Transource.
Shaw is warily following the bills in Congress.
“Honestly, I don’t trust the federal bureaucracy to watch out for the good of the local state, much less the local county or farm,” he said.
Shaw said what seemed to work best in his case was that many agencies and individuals could ask hard questions and come up with a solution that worked for most of them.
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