Local politics reroutes the PATH project

By Kennedy Maize


Evidence builds for the proposition that constructing new high-voltage transmission remains harder than bringing on new power generation. Facing increasing political opposition in West Virginia and Maryland, American Electric Power, headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, and Allegheny Energy of Greenburg, Pa., last week said they are going to reroute their planned 765-KV, 290-mile Potomac Appalachian Transmission Highline (PATH) project.

Despite its designation as a national interest project under the terms of the 2005 Energy Policy Act, PATH faced growing citizen opposition, particularly in West Virginia’s prosperous Eastern Panhandle.

All three candidates for West Virginia governor this year, including incumbent Democrat Joe Manchin, opposed the project. The most powerful argument of opponents is that nobody in West Virginia will benefit from the transmission line, but will shoulder substantial costs. Allegheny Power, the Allegheny Energy regulated utility subsidiary, held some 20 open house sessions in area, and received about 2,000 comments, according to the Hagerstown (Md.) Herald-Mail newspaper.

The energy companies’ initial plan involved a new 765-KV line from an existing AEP substation near Charleston, W.Va., to Allegheny’s existing Bedlington substation in eastern West Virginia, a 244-mile run. From there, two 500-KV lines would move the power 46 miles to an existing Allegheny substation near Frederick, Md., allowing the power to be sold into the PJM Interconnection wholesale market.

A major part of the political problem was that the twin-circuit 550-KV lines could have had a visual and land-use impact on Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park, the Appalachian Trail, and Antietam National Battlefield, as well as depressing already-falling local property values. Allegheny Power spokesman Todd Meyers told the Hagerstown paper, “With all the different constraints, all the different historic areas of the parks, communications, etc., and everything we were hearing in the open houses, it was going to be very difficult.”

Allegheny said it will examine a new path for PATH that eschews the Bedlington site. Instead, the developers will look at a new substation further south, ducking Berkeley and Jefferson counties in West Virginia and Washington County in Maryland. The company said it will also scrap the twin 500-KV lines for a single 765-KV cable. Bedlington could not have handled the 765-KV line, Meyers told the Herald-Mail.

This will, of course, put a crimp in the utilities’ schedule for the project, which they hoped to have in service in 2012. Meyers told the newspaper the route change would eat up three months in the schedule. There is no way to verify that; these disputes typically spin out much farther into the future than the developers ever privately anticipate or publicly acknowledge.

The 2005 energy law, giving the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission authority to override state objections to new power lines that the Department of Energy judges are important nationally, has yet to be tested. Some serious analysts question whether it will work at all.

One problem: before state regulators can act, frequently local interests must weigh in. If local opposition is intense, state regulators have an incentive to play stall-ball, repeatedly delaying action on the transmission project, hoping that time will take the decision out of their hands. According to legal experts, it isn’t clear that state inaction represents a rejection of the power line, triggering federal review.

I suspect years will pass, with much state and federal litigation, including at least one trip to the U.S. Supreme Court, before the meaning of the 2005 legislation begins to get clarified. The fast track express envisioned by Congress looks more and more like a slow local, with many whistle stops along the line.

That prompts a reminder from one of the most perspicacious politicians of all time, the late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.): All politics is local.