High-Voltage Debate

Posted on: September 28th, 2007 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

Virginia power linesThe Northeast's longest free-flowing river, the Upper Delaware River, meanders from Hancock, N.Y., to Matamoras, Pa. Bald eagles make this a popular bird-watching spot. Abundant fish lure fly fishermen, and Class II and III rapids attract kayakers. Congress, recognizing the natural beauty of this area, set aside the Upper Delaware Wild and Scenic River for protection under the National Parks System in 1978. The area, 90 minutes from New York City, "is pristine and gorgeous," says Michael Schmidt, a kayaker and regular park visitor. "It is one of the most tranquil parts of the country I have ever been to."

But the area is just one of the many historic and scenic places that may soon have a new neighbor: a 500-kilovolt transmission line some 160 feet overhead. New York Regional Interconnect, Inc. has proposed a 190-mile line from central New York to the lower Hudson Valley to alleviate energy congestion in the Northeast. The preferred route in some sections follows a gas pipeline—a right of way that predates the park—and passes through four miles of ridge top along the river and a mile-long section of the canal.

Not surprisingly, local and national organizations have been actively opposing the line. "If someone was fly fishing on the river or recreating on the park site, they will look up and shadows will be cast down on the river and in the valley by these 160-foot towers," says Bryan Faehner, legislative representative at the National Parks Conservation Association.

Similar battles are taking place in eight eastern states. In response to emergencies like New York City's electricity blackout in 2003, as well as mounting pressures on overrun electric grids, Congress enacted the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which asks the Department of Energy to study and identify areas of high congestion. Its report was not surprising. The country's Northeast and Southwest use the most energy, and the current electric infrastructure cannot keep up with the expanding population's needs to power everything from laptops to air conditioners. "The grid was designed in early 1900s and has exceeded intended use," says Julie Ruggiero, spokeswoman for the Department of Energy.

In response, in April the Department of Energy proposed designating the two areas as national interest electric transmission corridors. The drafted Southwest Area National Corridor covers counties in Southern California, Arizona, and Nevada. The drafted Mid-Atlantic Area National Corridor spans a wide swath of Delaware, Ohio, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

Local environmental groups and national conservation organizations, who were already fighting proposals for new high-voltage transmission lines at the state level, feared the worst. The National Trust for Preservation in June named historic areas within the national interest electric transmission corridors as one of the 11 Most Endangered Places in 2007. The proposed designation, they say, would grant broad powers to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to bypass existing preservation and conservation laws to approve new transmission lines.

In the past, the authority to approve new lines, most of which provided local energy almost exclusively, rested solely with the state, which would perform environmental assessments and weigh energy needs against the state's interests (preservation of historic places and districts being among them). But these new transmission lines will pass through several states and are therefore often a cooperative effort among multiple utility companies. State regulation authorities now only have one year to perform evaluations before they respond. If they take longer than the allotted time or decline the proposal, the utility companies can seek approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Unfortunately, some say, the law does not provide enough time for the state to consider and act on all pertinent issues surrounding the new line. As a consequence, says Ginny Kreitler, an advisor to the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association, the federal government can give unprecedented eminent-domain powers to private utility companies. Gettysburg Military Battlefield, as well as state parks, heritage areas, 42 sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and more than 500,000 acres of land protected under conservation easements sit within the corridor in Pennsylvania.

"Twelve Civil War battlefields will be potentially impacted by the proposed powerlines in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia," says Jim Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Preservation Trust. "These are not unknown sites, but some of the most famous battlegrounds in the nation, such as Antietam, Manassas and Gettysburg. A handful of powerful utility companies cannot be allowed to undue all time and money invested in protecting these and other hallowed battlefields for future generations of Americans."

In Virginia, the new corridor covers much of the state's Piedmont area, including 10 counties from Richmond and Charlottesville north to Washington, D.C. To bring more energy to Northern Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Dominion Virginia Power has proposed a 65-mile line from Warren County to Loudoun County. A preferred route follows near an existing right of way, and the alternate route follows the I-66 corridor. According to the National Trust for Preservation and the Virginia-based Piedmont Environmental Council, the lines may run within or within the viewshed of 12.9 miles of the Appalachian trail, bird and wildlife trails, scenic byways and rivers, more than 100,000 acres of land protected through conservation easements, designated historic districts, and 37 historic sites, including within two miles of Chief Justice John Marshall's boyhood home in Fauquier County, Va.

The Piedmont Environmental Council, like other groups opposing lines in the Mid-Atlantic, request that the utility companies exhaust alternative measures—upgrade existing lines, explore demand-side power programs, promote conservation—before they start building new lines. "It's about making money," says Bob Lazaro, spokesman for the Piedmont Environmental Council. "We believe that between energy efficiency and conservation and technology that [the line] is not needed."

Brian Fahner, legislative representative at the National Parks Conservation Association, also believes new transmission lines bringing in energy from sources like coal would negate the efforts of states such as Pennsylvania, which has pledged to use 18 percent renewable resources by 2020 and New York, which has committed to 24 percent by 2013.

The Department of Energy maintains that although it values energy efficiency and alternative energy sources, it must meet the voracious demand for electricity. "Utilities and state regulators need to look at the energy needs from a regional and national level," Ruggiero says. "A blackout or brownout is not fun."

According to Dominion Virginia Power, the risk of blackouts in Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia will grow greatly by 2011. John Smatlak, Dominion's vice president for electric transmission, says the company supports conservation and demand-side management programs, and every year it upgrades lines in Northern Virginia. Even so, the Loudoun County line is still critical, he says. "In the long term, we need all of those things: this transmission line, others, conservation, and more energy generation." Dominion revised the line's route in February to bypass more areas of historic and cultural significance after hearing from the public. The company hopes that the state will make a final decision on the line by September 2008.

On the national level, the Department of Energy has heard from more than 2,000 groups, state and local government officials, and other individuals when it opened the proposals to public comment this summer. Within the next few months, they will approve the maps as is, make adjustments, or decide not to designate corridors at all.

Meanwhile, state and national organizations continue to echo the sentiment of a letter sent to the Department of Energy by a resident of Haymarket, Va. "The impact of the proposal is already being felt," wrote Barbara Zblewski. "The opposition has grown out of concern regarding compromised property values and quality of life, decimated historic and environmentally sensitive areas and potential for undermining the economic viability of an area struggling to provide for its citizens."

- Whitney Dangerfield for Preservation Online

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