The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) on Thursday approved an agreement that allows a 1.2-mile portion of the controversial 37.2-mile transmission line proposed in that state by the Trans-Allegheny Interstate Line Co. (TrAILCo). The commission stayed the rest of Allegheny’s proposal for further consideration.

The regulatory body voted 4-1 to adopt a motion (PDF) that approves the 1.2-mile Pennsylvania segment of the 502 Substation to Loudoun line. In a separate motion (PDF)—as had been earlier requested by TrAILCo—the commission voted 3-2 to stay the remainder of the proposal and directed the active parties in the case to establish a collaborative process to discuss and develop possible alternatives regarding the remainder of the line.

TrAILCo’s $850 million project—named the Trans-Allegheny Interstate Line (TrAIL)—calls for construction of a new 500-kV line extending from southwestern Pennsylvania through West Virginia and into northern Virginia by 2011. The Pennsylvania portion of the 215-mile project will address reliability needs, while segments in West Virginia and Virginia are crucial to prevent overloads—and subsequent rolling blackouts and brownouts—that have been projected for as early as 2011, the company said.

The Virginia State Corporation Commission and the Public Service Commission of West Virginia earlier authorized construction of TrAIL, pending approval in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Commission said it would issue a final order at a later date.

“In approving the 502 Junction Facilities, it is important to note the seriousness this Commission attaches to regional reliability,” PUC Chair James Cawley said in a statement (PDF).

“We approved this project despite Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) policies that currently discourage regional cooperation. FERC policies make all PJM customers pay equally for major backbone transmission projects, independent of who actually benefits. More sound policies would rationally allocate most costs to beneficiaries, while allocating a smaller portion to all customers given the long term uncertainty and overall grid-wide reliability benefits of a well interconnected grid.”

According to Vice Chairman Tyrone J. Christy, who issued a dissenting statement, the PUC’s primary duty was to balance the interests of the public with those of utilities, and it was apparent that customers in western Pennsylvania would receive little in return for the siting of the TrAILCo lines in their backyards.

“Only the stockholders, generation owners and perhaps customers in eastern PJM will benefit. I can not support a project that imposes all of the costs and none of the benefits on one segment of the public,” he said.

Stressing that he was not opposed to construction of large transmission projects, Christy added: “Transmission line siting cases present two fundamental issues to this Commission—whether the need for the line exists; and, whether the proposed route is the best of all alternatives considered. It is painfully apparent from the record that TrAILCo did not come close to meeting its burden of proof in this case on either count.”

TrAILCo said (PDF) it was pleased with the PUC’s decision and that it would now enter into a collaborative process to identify potential alternatives to resolve local reliability issues anticipated to occur in Washington County, in southwestern Pennsylvania, by 2009.

It added it would continue its preconstruction activities, such as right-of-way acquisition and permitting and engineering activities, in all three states. The construction phase will last about two-and-a-half years, with TrAIL targeted for completion by June 2011.

Sources: Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission, TrAILCo