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Central question before PUC: Is a new power line needed?

Published: Monday, October 06, 2008
Updated: Monday, October 6, 2008 10:27 AM EDT
Second of two parts    Read part one

When a pair of administrative law judges recommended in August that the state Public Utility Commission reject a proposed high-voltage transmission line in southwestern Pennsylvania, Peter Derrenbacher found the news encouraging.

But he finally allowed himself to hope two weeks ago after prospective builder Allegheny Energy Inc. bowed to public opposition and announced it will seriously scale down the proposed $1.1 billion project in Greene and Washington counties.

Mr. Derrenbacher, president of the Saw Creek Estates Community Association in Pike County, knows the proposed Susquehanna-Roseland Power Line is a different project by a different utility in a different part of the state.

But in what he characterizes as a David-versus-Goliath struggle to keep PPL Electric Utilities from putting its 500,000-volt transmission line through the heart of their 3,000-home development, residents will take inspiration wherever they find it.

“It shows that when these proposals are made by these utilities, they are not irreversible,” Mr. Derrenbacher said. “What is implied is going to happen may not necessarily happen.”

The swift unraveling of the Allegheny Energy project, known as the Trans-Allegheny Interstate Line, or TrAIL, provides an intriguing backdrop against which PPL will make the case for its line.

PPL expects to ask the PUC by year’s end for authorization to construct the 99-mile line from the Susquehanna nuclear plant in Luzerne County’s Salem Twp. to the Delaware River near Bushkill. That’s where it will meet a similar line Public Service Electric and Gas Co. wants to build between the river and its Roseland substation in New Jersey.

PPL spokesman Paul Wirth insists the TrAIL case will not change how the Allentown utility approaches the Susquehanna-Roseland project.

Jeff Schmidt, state director of the Sierra Club, thinks the western Pennsylvania case is going to be almost impossible for the utility to ignore.

“We see that decision as an important foundation upon which the PPL power line proposal will have to be debated,” he said.

State Consumer Advocate Irwin A. “Sonny” Popowsky, whose office intends to intervene in the PPL case, just as it did on the TrAIL application to the PUC, cautioned against reading too much into the outcome in western Pennsylvania.

“One thing I can say is, each line has to be judged on its own merits,” Mr. Popowsky said.

Battle brewing

PPL’s application to state regulators will set in motion a review process in which the company and other formal parties, such as the PUC’s Office of Trial Staff, the Office of Consumer Advocate, environmental groups and individuals, will present evidence to an administrative law judge.

Consumers who don’t wish to file a formal protest can still make informal complaints to the PUC. In addition, the administrative law judge will conduct public input hearings separate from the formal evidentiary hearings.

After reviewing the evidence and arguments, the administrative law judge will recommend a decision to the PUC. The commission may accept, reject or modify the decision.

Transmission line siting reviews typically involve two questions: Is the project needed? Is the proposed route the best of the alternatives, given factors such as safety and environmental impacts?

PPL will argue the Susquehanna-Roseland line is necessary to prevent overloads on 23 transmission lines in Pennsylvania and New Jersey as early as 2013.

The recommended route, one of three alternatives considered, follows the path of an existing 230,000-volt transmission line — acknowledged by the utility as the primary reason for its selection.

In the TrAIL case, Allegheny Energy proposed construction of a 37-mile, 500,000-volt line from Washington County through Greene County to address local reliability issues. It would have been part of a larger, 240-mile high-voltage line extending through West Virginia and Virginia to the Washington, D.C., area.

But the two administrative law judges who handled the case concluded the local line wasn’t needed, branding it “a grandiose answer to a minor or nonexistent problem.” They also found the utility failed to make a case for the interstate line, saying the “true impetus” was to transport cheaper, coal-generated electricity to mid-Atlantic markets.

In addition, the judges hit the utility on route selection, saying its siting decisions were mandated by pre-existing right-of-way agreements, and said its proposal failed to adequately address the potential impacts on public health and safety.

On Sept. 22, faced with the unfavorable recommendation and continuing public outcry, Allegheny Energy scrapped plans for 36 miles of the proposed power line. Instead, under a proposed settlement with Greene County officials, it would build a 1.2-mile, 500-kilovolt line to link a new substation in southern Greene County to the remainder of the line at the West Virginia border.

EMFs sure to be debated

One of the health issues in the western Pennsylvania case is almost certain to be an issue when PPL takes its project before the PUC — exposure to electromagnetic fields.

Electromagnetic fields, or EMFs, are unseen lines of force associated with the transmission and use of electricity. Because of the ubiquitous nature of electric power, people are constantly being exposed to electric and magnetic fields of varying strength, produced by everything from power lines to auto ignitions to electric razors.

But since the late 1970s, when studies first suggested an association between long-term exposure to magnetic fields and the incidence of childhood leukemia, EMFs have become an elusive bogeyman in the debate over where to site — and not to site — high-voltage lines.

As the judges in the TrAIL case noted in their decision, “No issue in a proceeding to locate and construct high-voltage transmission lines is more controversial or fraught with more conflicting information than the alleged effect of exposure to electromagnetic fields.”

The PUC has no formal position on EMFs, spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said. Mr. Popowsky said to the extent a utility can take steps to minimize public exposure to EMFs at a “modest and reasonable” cost, his office will push those.

Linda Erdreich, Ph.D., a New York epidemiologist and health risk assessment specialist who has been working with PPL as a consultant, acknowledged associations between EMFs and childhood cancer have been observed.

But there is inadequate evidence to show a cause-and-effect relationship between long-term EMF exposure and any disease, despite repeated attempts to find it, she said.

Still, she understands why EMFs are such a hot-button issue in power line discussions.

“There is nothing — nothing — more important to people than their children,” Dr. Erdreich said. “Childhood leukemia is scary ... no matter how weak the evidence is.”

Christopher Portier, Ph.D., associate director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, said while there is no definitive evidence magnetic fields cause childhood leukemia, the association between the two is clear.

What is still unclear is the mechanism behind the association, whether it is the field or something else, Dr. Portier said.

The link is strong enough that both his agency and the World Health Organization classify EMFs as a possible human carcinogen.

“There is an association,” he said. “You can’t minimize the association by wishing it away.”

Louis Slesin, editor of Microwave News, a respected online journal that has covered EMF-related issues for more than 25 years, said a favored argument of utilities is magnetic fields from appliances such as hair dryers and can openers are often stronger than those directly beneath power lines.

The logic, Mr. Slesin said, is spurious. While fields from appliances are high, they drop off “really, really quickly” at distance, much more quickly than the field from a 500,000-volt transmission line, he said. And while you can choose not to use a hair dryer, there is often no option if a utility decides to put a line near your house.

“Your exposure is 24/7,” Mr. Slesin. “That’s the issue. It is the chronic exposure.”

PPL looks to mitigate EMFs

PPL is planning to take steps to minimize exposure to EMFs generated by the new transmission line in accordance with a magnetic field management program it put in place in 1991 for new or rebuilt lines, Mr. Wirth, the utility’s spokesman, said.

The benefit of a couple of those is self-evident; as Mr. Slesin says when it comes to EMFs, “Distance is your friend.”

Instead of the 85-foot towers that now carry a 230,000-volt line along most of the route, the towers PPL will construct for the new line will be 175 to 185 feet tall. And although the utility already has the easements in place in most cases, the right of way beneath the line will expand from 150 feet to 200 feet.

But Mr. Slesin said the easiest way to get rid of a magnetic field is through phasing, or arranging the lines in such a way to cancel out or reduce the field. According to PPL, phasing can reduce the strength of a magnetic field by up to 69 percent.

Mr. Wirth said PPL plans to use a technique known as reverse phasing, employed in the configuration of the double-circuit transmission lines, along the entire 49-mile length of the line from the Peckville area to the Delaware River.

That is the span that runs past the homes in Saw Creek Estates. Mr. Wirth said PPL models show EMF levels in the development will be lower after the 500-kilovolt line is in place than they are now with the existing 230-kilovolt line.

There may be portions of the line where a different phasing arrangement produces lower EMF readings, such as the 13-mile stretch in the Scranton area where the new line will parallel the existing 230-kilovolt line, Mr. Wirth said.

“The bottom line is that we will use the phasing arrangement that produces the lowest EMF readings,” he said.

‘100 percent adverse impact’

Rocco Pannozzo, vice president of the Saw Creek Estates Community Association, said whether it is the EMFs, the unsightly transmission towers, the impact of construction on the environment, or any combination of those, the PPL project has no positives for people who live along the route.

“There is going to be a 100 percent adverse impact — period,” he said.

Like many of his neighbors, Mr. Pannozzo believes the utility is motivated by greed, viewing the line as a conduit to sell more power to Northeast markets.

“The question that comes up is, where is the real need for this?” he said. “Is there really a justifiable need for this line to begin with?”

Mr. Popowsky, the consumer advocate, expects that question to be the central issue when PPL takes the Susquehanna-Roseland proposal to the Public Utility Commission. If nothing else, the TrAIL case in western Pennsylvania demonstrated the project will not be rubber-stamped, he said.

“What people can take from that,” Mr. Popowsky said, “is the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission will give careful consideration to not just what the company has to say but what the residents and customers in Northeastern Pennsylvania have to say.”

Contact the writer: dsingleton@timesshamrock.com

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