Power line plan fight heats up

By SETH AUGENSTEIN

saugenstein@njherald.com

The future of the planned new power lines through the heart of Sussex County hang on the question of whether it can be proven the 500-kilovolt lines are necessary.

Public Service Electric and Gas, as well as PJM Interconnection, which controls the regional electricity grid, say the Susquehanna-Roseland lines are needed to meet future power demand.

Critics, including environmentalists, say power usage is declining in a bad economy and new "green" technology can provide the required
electricity.

The debate will continue this fall, when the state Board of Public Utilities will host hearings on the plan and determine whether the project will be approved.

The buzz, perhaps even some shouting, will center on whether people will need more energy beginning three years from now.

Power companies: Need inevitable

PSE&G and PJM call Susquehanna-Roseland a "reliability project." They're planning it because they predict real possibilities of blackouts, brownouts and other lapses in the region's power grid resulting from the reliance on the 1920s-era towers and 230-kilovolt lines currently used. They're proposing to add 500-kilovolt lines over the existing ones -- some 80 feet taller than the existing wires -- they say would eliminate any potential power shortage problems.

PJM and PSE&G say while no reliability problems currently exist, they predict that starting in 2012, potential power concerns will pop up and steadily multiply in the next decade. All these could result in power
outages if more power lines aren't installed to bolster the grid.

The two organizations worked closely to identify these problems and proposed the new power lines in 2008. The proposed route is about 46 miles from the Delaware River in Knowlton to the utility's switching station in Roseland, Essex County.

Ray Dotter, spokesman for PJM Interconnection, said the organization's sole responsibility is maintaining power reliability for an area from Illinois through Virginia, including New Jersey. The grid constantly is being reviewed to keep it compliant with the national grid reliability standards, he said; those results prove the Susquehanna-Roseland project is the most efficient, easiest way to solve most of the future -- and inevitable -- problems, he said.

"What somebody has done was connect the dots," Dotter said. "Our only interest at PJM is keeping the lights on for people.

"I wouldn't jump out of a building without a safety net already in place," he added. "That's all we're trying to do -- is get a safety net in place."

Critics: Not so fast

Environmentalists, individuals and even a dedicated group named "Stop the Lines" continue to fight Susquehanna-Roseland along every step of its approval and have hired attorneys and experts to help them.

One such expert, Benjamin Sovacool, has submitted testimony to the state calling into question the very formula PJM has relied upon to require the line by 2012. Sovacool -- a noted energy academic who's taught at Virginia Tech, the National University of Singapore, and other places -- said PSE&G did not pursue ways to extend the longevity of the current line through energy alternatives and conservation efforts. Sovacool also said the power company is relying on outdated technology that soon will become redundant with future energy use trends.

"Overbuilding at this time would also set our path in steel and concrete when much is changing in energy planning, development and use," he said.

Opposition centers around arguments that power demand and consumption actually have decreased the last two years, countering the steady increase predicted by PJM over the same period.

Dena Mottola, the executive director of Environment New Jersey, has fought environmental battles in the Garden State, including the proposed sale of PSE&G to Exelon last year, and she's one of the opponents of PSE&G's newest plan. She estimates power demands will stay flat the next several years; the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission did a study calculating the demand increase to be half of what PJM says it is.

Plus, needs identified by PJM are based on roughly 50 hours of peak usage during the hottest summer days in a given year. Mottola said demand-response -- a way of limiting power usage during those absolute peak times -- could preclude building the lines, and drop energy needs to the point the lines will not have to be built.

"There is a need -- just not for this line," Mottola said.

A municipal coalition of seven area towns -- Andover Township, Byram, Fredon, Hardwick, East Hanover, Montville and Parsippany-Troy Hills -- also is fighting the lines. Scott Olson, Byram's deputy mayor, said hundreds, perhaps thousands, are irate their electricity rates are paying for lines that will affect their properties and way of life when solar panels could solve energy needs.

"I don't know the need is real," he said. "Instead, they're laying this giant extension cord out to the Midwest, and they're fighting us with our own money."

A recent environmental approval for the plan only hardened opposition to the project. On July 25, the Highlands Council approved PSE&G's mitigation plan, including an $18.6 million payout to the council. Critics vociferously opposed the move, calling it "unethical" -- and one of the Highlands Council members called it tantamount to "a shakedown of a public utility."

Hearings to be contentious

The state had three public hearings in June and July on the project. By the time of the state Board of Public Utilities Oct. 19-23 evidence hearings, opposition groups said they'll be ready with witnesses and independent studies of the area's power needs. The Sierra Club plans to have its own ordered studies released sometime this month, and the local municipal coalition plans to publicize its findings before the hearings begin.

PSE&G, on the other hand, has a ream of reports available on its Web site attesting to the inevitability of the lines. Both sides also will be battling about issues such as environmental impacts and health impacts.

So far, the power companies' records in these matters is very good. PJM spokeswoman Paula Dupont-Kidd said she cannot recall a line endorsed by PJM along the grid that was not approved.

Mottola said the time could be right for the state to make an unprecedented decision by questioning PJM's experts in light of other, non-grid-related experts.

"It might be the chance for BPU to set a tough precedent, to be innovative and forward thinking," she said. "Are they going to stake their future energy needs on renewables -- or are they going to play it safe?"