January 21, 2009  

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Power company runs around town

(by Cindy Forrest - January 21, 2009)
It’s official. Public Service Electric and Gas Company (PSE&G) has acted upon its decision to circumvent municipalities and go directly to the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) for approval of its massive $650 million power project.  As anticipated, PSE&G submitted its application on Jan. 12 to the BPU to construct the proposed Susquehanna-Roseland power line.

The plan calls for a 500,000 kilovolt transmission line to be added to the 230,000 kilovolt line that runs along an existing path through 15 towns and hundreds of acres of sensitive Highlands land carrying Pennsylvania coal to New Jersey and beyond.  The project under consideration requires the lines to be enlarged and moved higher off the ground by raising existing towers from approximately 90 to 190 feet high.

Just a few months ago PSE&G held public meetings and vowed to appear before municipal councils and boards to make their case and get local approvals for the proposed power line.  The utility had been scheduled to give a presentation in Parsippany in January; however, Jasmine Lim, the township’s business administrator, announced that PSE&G had abruptly cancelled without an explanation or a reschedule date. And so it seems that the resolve to get public buy-in on the project has disappeared in favor of just one go ahead vote from a small group of state officials.

The road to power
Now that the application has been submitted the BPU will begin the process of gathering and sorting out the countless issues, concerns and consequences of the new line, according to BPU spokesman Doyal Sliddell.

“Board staff will gather information and build a record that would be the basis for the Board's analysis and decision,” Sliddell said. “That gathering of information includes opportunities for the public, including affected municipalities, environmental advocates, and other stakeholders to provide information and share their concerns. As part of that process, the towns involved may seek to become parties to the case before the Board.”

Under state law, if the BPU approves the line, PSE&G would not need approvals from local authorities.  The law gives the BPU one year to make a decision, if it fails to do so the utility can take their case to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

PSE&G will also need a decision from the Highlands Council and the state Department of Environmental Protection as to whether the project falls under the exemption clause of the Highlands Act and the Regional Master Plan.

PPL Electric Utilities, which is building the Pennsylvania portion of the line, filed an application for approval with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission on Jan. 6.

Need or not
“The line is needed because demand for electricity in our area has risen substantially in recent years, and is expected to continue to grow over the long term despite the current economic slowdown and conservation efforts,” said Ralph LaRossa, president of PSE&G.

He added that PJM Interconnection, L.L.C., the independent regional planning organization, has determined that 23 transmission circuits will be overloaded within its 15-year planning horizon if the Susquehanna-Roseland project is not constructed and placed into service.

However environmentalist dispute the scope of the project, the plan and the process as they call for cleaner, more efficient means of providing power in the Garden State.

An analysis by Environment New Jersey finds that the proposed line expansion has the potential to move at least 3,000 megawatts of energy from coal states into or through New Jersey. That’s enough electricity to power 800,000 or more homes. Growth in the state's electric demand does not warrant such a large increase in transmission capacity, they claim. Even conservative projections from the grid operator, PJM, show peak demand in PSE&G's entire service area will rise by only 2,000 megawatts by 2020.

"No one disputes that North Jersey's electricity highways are congested and need relief to avoid price spikes and blackouts in the future. But New Jersey's energy future should not be tied to dirty coal plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania, when home grown renewable energy and energy efficiency can provide the solution," said Dena Mottola Jaborska, executive director, Environment New Jersey.

Environment New Jersey estimates that if PSE&G were to invest $650 million, the cost of the Susquehanna-Roseland line, it could buy at least 2,000 megawatts of energy savings through energy efficiency measures, reducing all of the expected growth in customers' peak demand period. Along that line Governor Jon Corzine has put in motion a strategy to cut energy usage statewide and to build more clean energy generation capacity.

Mayor Deborah Nielson of Montville, a town that would be significantly impacted by the new lines, also questioned the need. “Given President-elect Barack Obama and Gov. Corzine’s green initiatives and their endorsement of energy conservation measures I wonder whether PSE&G’s projections for demand growth are valid,” she said.

PSE&G had investigated three possible construction routes and chose the one that followed an existing path.  The company claims that its choice, Route B, will have the least environmental impact, least impact on residential areas and least potential to alter wooded wetlands and forested lands.

Once begun, construction would take about two and a half years to complete.

One municipality’s fight
Montville is one of many area towns that joined the Coalition of the Concerned Municipalities last year when PSE&G’s intention to take the approval process away from the towns became clear.  However, until the BPU begins its deliberations these towns have no clear course of action.

"I’m really dismayed and upset that they went to the BPU," said Mayor Deborah Nielson (sen), "so now we are assessing the situation. I’ve asked our business administrator, Frank Bastone, to reach out to his counterparts in neighboring towns regarding our next steps. I know we want to get our comments on the record but I’ve spoken with the BPU office and no public meetings have been scheduled yet. I have requested that the meetings be held locally and not at their offices in Newark."

When the route announcement was first made last summer Montville was the site of one of the first meetings held by the utility, however according to the mayor the information that was requested then has never been received. "There are still more questions than answers," she said, "we need this information to make sure that the people of Montville are safeguarded."

The logistic questions alone have elected officials keenly aware of the uncertainties they face, such as the kind of machinery that would be brought in to construct the giant towers needed to sustain the powerful lines.

"Will they bring in cranes, or helicopters?," asked Nielson. "Will they destroy curbing, disrupt traffic? Some of the monopoles could require 40-ft. anchors in the ground made up of solid rock. Will they have to blast?"

Montville is one of the towns that would be most affected by the proposed power line, according to Nielson.

"We have the most mileage of lines coming through our town. We estimated 6.9 miles and PSE&G has it at 7.6 miles either way those lines would be running through the densest residential neighborhoods in our town. Then there’s the impact on our aquifer and the fact that our middle school is within 500 feet of the proposed line," she said. "Every single public school child in this town goes to that school for three years. Nielson said one of the questions posed to PSE&G is whether they would consider relocating the lines away from the Robert R. Lazar School.

David vs. Goliath battle
The existing power line dates to the 1920s and, according to La Rossa, needs to be upgraded with an additional line. He claims that the new power line will benefit all area residents and businesses, regardless of their local electric company, by helping to prevent overloads in the regional grid particularly during peak usage times such as hot summer days.

However, for some the gauntlet has been thrown. In addition to the fight at the municipal level, environmentalists and citizens are making their voices heard.

"This power line is the Line in the Sand for us,” stated Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club's NJ Chapter “We will fight to stop this line because it is bad for the environment, climate change, pollution, open spaces and consumers - it is just bad,"

A grassroots group called Stop the Lines also has been formed to combat the utility plan.

"As local residents, we are concerned the line expansion will harm our health, devalue our property, and despoil the environment. PSE&G's plan to deal with an estimated 1.5 percent increase in peak demand with a more than 300 percent increase in transmission capacity is unnecessary, irresponsible, and profit motivated. Peak energy demand is only 50 hours out of the year, and should be addressed through conservation and other available alternatives," said spokesman David Slaperud.

Going east
The selected route begins in Hardwick Township, Warren County, proceeds east to Andover Township, Sussex County, and on to Jefferson, Morris County. The route continues east to Montville and then turns south to Roseland Borough in Essex County. The line follows an existing power line for the entire 45-mile length and will pass through 15 municipalities: Andover, Boonton, Byram, East Hanover, Fredon, Hardwick, Jefferson, Kinnelon, Montville, Newton, Parsippany-Troy Hills, Rockaway Township, Roseland, Sparta and Stillwater. Under federal rules, the 51 million people who live in the PJM territory will share the cost of the project. As a result, New Jersey electric customers will pay for about 14 percent of the cost while receiving the reliability benefits.

More information about the project can be found at reliabilityproject.pseg.com.



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