Three independent experts recently provided testimony to Pennsylvania’s Office of Consumer Advocate about Transource Energy’s proposal to build miles of overhead electric transmission lines between Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Their characterization of the project as inefficient and unnecessary has prompted cautious optimism for citizen opponents in Harford County whose property could be used for a Maryland section of the new lines.
“Because we have learned that the alternatives are truly viable, we are encouraged to have the experts validate that expectation of that information that we had discovered,” Aimee O’Neill, of Norrisville, said Saturday.
O’Neill, the co-chair of STOP Transource Power Lines MD Inc., and many of her fellow citizens in Harford and York County, Pa. have been working since last summer to try to stop the project to protect preserved farms, as well as scenic highways, businesses and residences along the route.
She said about 90 percent of the land that could be affected by the planned Independence Energy Connection in Harford County has been preserved for agricultural use.
“Certainly, if land is preserved for agricultural protection, it should not be at risk for eminent domain for a for-profit market efficiency energy project,” O’Neill said.
Transource is seeking approval from regulators in both states to build the $320 million Independence Energy Connection project for PJM Interconnection, manager of a high-voltage power grid that serves 13 states. PJM hired Transource to build the 45 miles of new lines, build new substations and upgrade existing facilities to relieve congestion within the grid and create savings for electric customers.
There are two legs of the IEC, including a 29-mile segment between Franklin County, Pa. and Washington County, Md., and a 16-mile segment between York County and northeastern Harford County, ending at the Conastone substation in Norrisville. The new line will cover less than 4 miles in Harford but traverse a number of agricultural and residential properties.
Officials with PJM estimate consumers will save $866.2 million over 15 years, but the project’s purposes and claims about consumer savings, have come under fire, as untility regulators in both states who must approve the project, continue their review.
"Transource’s solution was evaluated by PJM and found to be the best answer for solving the problem with the electric grid they identified,” Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesperson for Transource, said in an emailed statement Monday. "The company is committed to working with landowners and communities to build the project as responsibly as possible. We’ve engaged communities in the siting process and moved to construction practices that will limit disturbance to agriculture and views.”
Transource officials expect the power lines will be in service by 2020, pending approval by regulators, according to Abbruzzese.
The Office of Consumer Advocate represents the interests of Keystone State consumers in cases before the Pennsylvania Utility Commission, according to the agency’s website.
The PUC must approve Transource’s application to build the new infrastructure north of the Mason-Dixon Line, and the Public Service Commission must sign off before the infrastructure is built in Maryland, where it must be approved by the Public Service Commission.
The OCA received written testimony from three experts in utility regulatory matters — Geoffrey Crandall, principal and vice president of MSB Energy Associates Inc. of Middleton, Wisc., Peter Lanzalotta, principal for Lanzalotta & Associates LLC in Hilton Head Island, S.C. and Scott Rubin, an independent consultant and attorney. Rubin worked for the OCA, including several years as a senior attorney, from 1983 to 1994, according to his testimony.
All three concluded that the Independence Energy Connection is unnecessary, as demand on the section of the grid serving Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. has decreased since PJM began seeking proposals to build the project in late 2014.
The project would also be too expensive for PJM, there are viable alternatives to building new transmission lines, such as energy efficiency programs or developing renewable energy resources, plus the proposed 230 kV transmission lines could be built on existing infrastructure in Pennsylvania rather than securing new rights of way and building new infrastructure, according to testimony.
Transource plans to build its new lines on double-circuit steel monpoles that are typically 135 feet high and require a 130-wide right of way, according to the IEC project website.
Lanzalotta noted PPL Corporation, which provides power in Pennsylvania, has two available transmission lines that can carry another 230 kV circuit, which are both in the area of Transource’s proposed IEC East route.
One line runs from Pennsylvania to the Conastone substation in Norrisville, and the second line ends at the Graceton station east of Conastone. Both are owned by BGE.
“PJM did not consider trying to use these as part of the IEC, because such use was not included as part of any of the proposals submitted to PJM,” Lazalotta wrote. “Such use could significantly reduce the environmental impact of this portion of the IEC.”
Abbruzzese, however, stated that Transource’s “thorough routing process included consideration of existing utility corridors where possible.
“Transource has identified a proposed route for the project that best balances the need to reinforce the electric grid and the disturbance caused by the facilities," the Transource spokesperson wrote in Monday’s email to The Aegis.
Property owners have been fighting the project since the IEC was announced in 2017. That same year, the Maryland General Assembly passed Senate Bill 969, which allows “a person” who has received a certificate of public convenience and necessity to build overhead power lines to acquire property for those lines by condemnation, or eminent domain.
O’Neill said the experts’ testimony validates research she and her fellow citizens have conducted, including identifying existing infrastructure where IEC lines could be built.
“The unfortunate aspect of this situation is, however, the process that PJM has in place for awarding these contracts does not allow for just pulling the project simply because an alternative has been identified,” O’Neill said.
The three experts’ testimony for the Pennsylvania OCA is far from the final word on the IEC. The testimony must be entered into the evidentiary record, which will happen next February during hearings before the Pennsylvania Utility Commission. Various witnesses, including those for the applicant, would testify then, according to Darryl Lawrence, a senior attorney for the OCA who is in charge of the Transource application.
Lawrence stated in an email Friday that the testimony “does represent the OCA’s position in this matter at the current time, but those positions may change as this matter progresses.”
Rubin, one of the experts, wrote that the IEC would reduce costs in some areas for PJM, but overall costs for the grid manager “would greatly exceed the project’s benefits,” generating less than 3 cents of benefits for every dollar invested.
He noted “even more severe” costs for consumers, such as a more than $340 million increase in costs for customers in eastern and central Pennsylvania over 15 years while western Pennsylvania customers would only see a $2 million reduction in costs.
“I conclude, therefore, that Transource has failed to demonstrate that there is an economic need for the IEC Project,” Rubin wrote. “In fact, PJM in general and Pennsylvania consumers in particular would save millions of dollars each year if the IEC Project is not built.”
What comes next
O’Neill said public hearings before the Maryland PSC, which precede evidentiary hearings, are scheduled for December. Evidentiary hearings for Transource Maryland LLC are scheduled for April 8 through April 25, 2019, according to the calendar posted on the PSC website.
She said she and other citizens have met with the Maryland Office of Peoples Counsel. That agency advocates for residential utility customers in Maryland, according to the OPC website.
The Maryland OPC shares information with its Pennsylvania counterparts, but it is a possibility that new experts would be needed for the Maryland case, O’Neill said, based on conversations with OPC attorney Gary Alexander.
She said the agency must demonstrate that the Transource project will harm all ratepayers in Maryland, not just property owners in Harford County, for opponents to prevail with the PSC.
“Unless it is proven that [the IEC] is too expensive and it ends up with a cost to the ratepayers of Maryland, the fact that there is an alternative route has no bearing on their decision,” O’Neill said.
Harford County Executive Barry Glassman and the County Council have expressed their support for the citizens, as well as state legislators who got several bills related to power line projects passed in the 2018 legislative session, although they do not apply retroactively to the IEC. Gov. Larry Hogan sent a letter to PJM in July requesting that company officials pause and re-evaluate the IEC, and he cited protecting farmland as a major reason.
O’Neill said she plans to seek stronger legislative protections in the 2019 General Assembly session, as the bills passed this year did not address requirements for utility companies to seek out existing infrastructure for new transmission lines.
“It’s the first time a for-profit energy project has been proposed that will require granting the authority of eminent domain to a private for-profit company to build the project,” she said of Transource. “That’s significant, especially when there’s existing equipment that will carry the same load, and I think any property owner should be concerned, any citizen should be concerned.”
This story has been updated with comments from Transource.