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September 29, 2009

Electric transmission towers hurt conservation efforts

The federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 directed the U.S. Department of Energy to designate large geographic areas for National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors. Within these corridors, power companies can bypass environmental laws and gain approval to build new high-voltage interstate transmission lines, even on environmentally sensitive and protected lands.

Proponents of these corridors claim that without greatly expanded electric transmission, we will experience brownouts and blackouts due to higher energy usage.

In response to the energy policy act, the Department of Energy two years ago designated National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors in the southwest and mid-Atlantic regions. The entire state of New Jersey is included in the Mid-Atlantic Corridor.

Critics complained the corridor concept was a step backward: It doesn't put enough emphasis on increasing energy conservation and efficiency, but encourages the expansion of traditional sources of fossil fuel-based energy that contribute to global climate change. Another criticism was the transmission corridor siting process did not require a thorough non-transmission alternatives analysis.

More than 116,000 square miles, including all of New Jersey, make up the Mid-Atlantic Corridor. This one corridor alone affects almost 50 million residents and dozens of state and national parks, wildlife refuges and recreation areas. And it opens the entire state to the potential for energy-related projects that can trump many of our environmental laws and policies.

Fortunately, New Jersey Sens. Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg are working to create protections for preserved lands within the electric transmission siting process — not an easy task.

The first New Jersey project to be proposed under the corridor designation is an expansion of high-voltage transmission lines that run through Warren, Sussex and Morris counties and the protected Highlands region of northwestern New Jersey. Existing 90-foot towers in the current right-of-way would be replaced with towers more than twice as tall, up to 195 feet, and the number of wires would be quadrupled to 20. A new switching station and dozens of miles of proposed access roads for construction equipment also are proposed, many through mature forests and state and county preserved lands.

The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Appalachian Trail, numerous state, county and municipal parks, and state wildlife management areas, as well as many historic sites and scenic views would be affected by the power line expansion and the construction roads. There is also concern that the height of the towers and network of wires could play havoc with migrating birds, including more than 30 rare species.

In June, after a mitigation plan and mitigation fund were proposed, the New Jersey Highlands Council voted 8-2 to recommend that the state Department of Environmental Protection grant an exemption for the project from Highlands Act regulations. The proposal is still before the DEP and the state Board of Public Utilities.

New Jersey's 2008 Energy Master Plan aims to reduce energy usage by 20 percent using efficiency measures, and sets a goal of producing 30 percent of the state's energy from renewables by 2020. There is great concern that these goals will not be met if a large transmission expansion takes place.

Many reports released over the past year point to lower energy usage nationwide, as well as gains we can achieve with greater energy conservation. We hope the soon-to-be released 2009 National Electric Transmission Congestion Study will reflect these findings.

Readers should contact Menendez and Lautenberg and their representatives in Congress to encourage them to continue working to protect preserved lands when electric transmission lines are being planned and sited.

And I hope Readaers will consult New Jersey Conservation Foundation's Web site for more information about conserving New Jersey's precious land and natural resources.