Electricity has begun flowing now over a 220-mile high-voltage power line that fishhooks from southern Pennsylvania into West Virginia and then into the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. It is one of only two major backbone additions to the mid-Atlantic transmission grid in two decades.
The $1.2 billion Trans-Allegheny Interstate Line -- known as TrAIL -- went from plans to completion in a surprisingly quick five years, despite pitched debates before regulators and a citizen uprising over a proposed route through the rich, grassy farms of "horse country" west of suburban Washington.
More elaborate variations of the saga of this power line are likely to be repeated throughout the United States as the nation's power grid struggles to serve the rising transmission needs of renewable power generation. But the variations may not be as quick, or as relatively inexpensive or as easy to justify, as the so-called "smart grid" takes shape.
TrAIL's rationale was straightforward: It was designed to relieve congestion on the most serious concentration of power lines in its region, says Michael Bryson, executive director of system operations at the PJM Interconnection. PJM runs the portion of the grid that serves parts of 13 mid-Atlantic states and the District of Columbia. The line will also allow old high-voltage lines to be improved and reduce the probability of blackouts, PJM says.
While TrAIL was able to thread its way through the regulatory-political-economic gantlet it faced, two companion high-voltage lines have not, illustrating the higher hurdles such projects may face in the future.
PJM decided to suspend two other billion-dollar power line projects after the recession stunted economic growth and electricity demand. It is re-evaluating the need for the proposed 275-mile, 765-kilovolt Potomac-Appalachian Transmission Highline (PATH) line from West Virginia into western Maryland, and the 230-mile-long Mid-Atlantic Power Path (MAPP) line, a combination of direct-current and alternating-current circuits that that would stretch from northern Virginia, across southern Maryland and under the Chesapeake Bay to the Delmarva Peninsula, then under the Delaware Bay into southern New Jersey.
The timetables for both projects will have to be re-examined, PJM said, in light of the drop-off in demand and the growth of demand response programs that include appliances that can be cut off in times of high power demand, if the customer agrees.
These lines become more difficult to justify if demand growth remains slow and if more customers decide to curb electricity use at times when prices rise. Planning will become still more complex if the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission goes ahead as expected this year with a rule requiring planners to consider mandates for more renewable energy in transmission project decisions, rather than looking only at grid reliability and congestion.
"Recent dramatic swings in economic forecasts and evolving public policies (particularly with respect to renewable energy) are adding greater uncertainty to our planning studies," explained PJM's CEO, Terry Boston, in a February speech. The possibility of accelerated retirements of older coal plants due to environmental restrictions, and the increase in demand response offers, adds to the uncertainty, he said.
Some winners and losers
TrAIL's timing was lucky. It was a major construction project that fell at the peak of the 2007-2008 recession. The Allegheny Power portion created the equivalent of 2,500 worker-year jobs, the company says.
And it won its approval before the recession changed electricity's growth forecasts. In 2007, Maryland's Public Service Commission stressed the need for the line, noting the state's dependence on imported power to meet up to 40 percent of customers' demands for electricity. Constraints on the capacity of existing power lines are a major contributor to the high electricity prices in the mid-Atlantic, from Virginia to New York, the commission said.
By expanding the grid's capacity to import power, the new line should increase competition and ease electricity prices, according to the project's builders, Allegheny Power (now part of FirstEnergy), and Dominion Virginia Power.
Joseph Bowring, president of Monitoring Analytics, PJM's independent market monitor, said the project should add to reliability and price competition. "You are dropping a very big line into the middle of the network. Clearly, it is going to have some impact, and I think it will be a positive impact." But the evidence will take some time to gather, he said.
The TrAIL line proposal was opposed from the outset by environmentalists and by residents along one of the original routes proposed for the line, within the "viewscape" of large farms and major estates. A furious backlash followed from influential residents. Ultimately, the line's route was shifted to the south, following the existing right of way for a smaller Dominion power line.
The losers in that shift include Rick and Virginia Dorkey, who raise cattle on their 142-acre property near the Rappahannock River in southern Fauquier County, Va.
Horses have more clout than cows
"There's a hell of a lot more money in north Fauquier County than there is here," says Virginia Dorkey. Over three decades, they said, they have restored a century-old farmhouse on the property. The one 40-foot transmission structure for the lower-voltage line at the back of their property was not an eyesore.
It was replaced by 140-foot steel lattice towers carrying the 500-kilovolt lines, three of which are plainly visible, they said. "There is this ugly glint in the sun, this silver monster, where there was nothing before," Virginia Dorkey said. "All we've done is for naught," said her husband. They said they have rejected a settlement offer from Dominion.
The Piedmont Environmental Council, which led the fight against TrAIL in Virginia, argued without success that Dominion had not proved the need for a line of that size and could have met reliability needs in large part with more demand response and electricity conservation programs. Virginia's program aims to reduce 2006 power consumption levels 10 percent by 2022, a target Dominion officials defended as achievable for a reasonable cost, but which falls well below more aggressive programs in other states, the company's opponents argued.
The Piedmont Council's focus on demand response prompted Virginia regulators to press PJM for a re-evaluation of the need for the PATH line, says the council's president, Chris Miller. That led to PJM's decision to suspend PATH based on the slowdown in electricity demand growth and the increase in demand response programs in PJM.
The TrAIL project also led, indirectly, to a stunning policy reversal on siting transmission lines. A lawsuit by the Piedmont Council resulted in a 2009 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit effectively nullifying the 2005 energy law provision giving FERC backstop siting authority for siting major transmission lines in the mid-Atlantic, one of the "national interest" corridors where congestion threatens grid reliability.
Judges do some legal rewiring
The court ruled that under the law's plain language, FERC could intervene if state commissions failed to act on a transmission proposal lying in a national corridor, but not if a state rejected the project outright.
That court decision strengthens the hand of mid-Atlantic state governors who want to build offshore wind power farms on their coasts rather than see Midwestern wind power imported into their urban areas.
"We wouldn't have been in the forefront of that debate if it wasn't for TrAIL," Miller said.
Miller's organization and other critics also fought back against the TrAIL line by asserting it would be a conduit for more coal-fired generation into the eastern mid-Atlantic states. Miller contends the line's principal purpose was to move more surplus power from Midwestern coal power plants into the East, as described in PJM's proposed "Mountaineer" project to add west-to-east transmission.
What the line will carry will depend on the kind of generation that is hooked onto it in the future, Bryson said. Today, no one can reliably predict how many older coal plants will be shuttered because of environmental requirements; how consumers will embrace energy efficiency; whether offshore wind farms become a reality; where new natural gas-fired generation is built within PJM; or whether the mid-Atlantic's nuclear power plants might be retired after 60 years of operation.
In sum, said PJM's Boston, "this region's electricity system faces more challenges in the next 10 years than any other period over the last 100 years." PJM must build these challenges into its transmission planning process, he said.
Seen in that light, the TrAIL project was a survivor of the old process. The new, more elaborate requirements for siting big power lines are part of a game that has just begun.