Northern Harford County community leaders battling Transource Energy’s $320 million project to build new power lines through their properties urged local legislators last week to pursue bills to protect their area and other parts of the state from such massive projects.
“What we would hope to accomplish in this next legislative session is legislation that is effective, to direct [applicants] that energy projects that come into the state of Maryland must first look at existing infrastructure,” Aimee O’Neill, a Norrisville resident and co-chair of STOP Transource Power Lines MD Inc., said during a Nov. 14 meeting with Harford County’s legislative delegation.
Harford’s 11-member House and Senate delegations held their annual pre-session meeting in the Bel Air Library, where they heard about issues and concerns, as well as accomplishments, from county agencies, municipal leaders, labor unions and community organizations as they prepare for the January start of the 2019 Maryland General Assembly legislative session.
O’Neill and her co-chair, Patti Hankins, of Pylesville, spent about 30 minutes giving legislators an overview of their extensive research into the Transource Independence Energy Connection project and state and federal policies that affect it, as well as potential legislative solutions.
Residents in Harford, as well as in York County, Pa., have been concerned about how the new overhead power lines could affect preserved farmland, as well as businesses, residences and scenic highways.
Since Independence Energy Connection was unveiled in mid-2017, affected landowners and communities have mobilized to fight it. Transource is undertaking the project on behalf of the regional power grid operator PJM Interconnection, which manages a power consortium serving 13 states, including Maryland.
A law passed by the Maryland legislature in 2017 allows land to be acquired by eminent domain for power line projects approved by state regulators.
Transource is seeking approval from utility regulators in Pennsylvania and Maryland to build 41 miles of new power lines, build new substations and upgrade existing facilities in the eastern and western portions of both states.
The 16-mile eastern segment is proposed to go through York County and northeastern Harford, ending at the Conastone substation in Norrisville. About three miles of the lines would be in Harford.
Officials with PJM have said the IEC project is meant to relieve congestion within the electric grid and improve efficiency; they estimate consumers will save $866.2 million over 15 years.
Community activists have challenged PJM’s pronouncements about consumer savings and its anticipated costs for the project. They have pushed for Transource to place its power lines on existing towers in the area, rather than build a whole new network.
The opposition’s efforts have included meeting with PJM officials, attending meetings held by Pennsylvania regulators, meeting with representatives of pertinent state agencies in Maryland, talking with utilities in other states, independent experts and even the staff of U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, whose district covers northern and central Harford.
The STOP Transource organization also sends via email regular updates on its research and activities.
Del. Teresa Reilly, a Republican, who is the Harford County House delegation chair, said O’Neill and Hankins have done “just a phenomenal job in keeping us updated on what’s going on, both of you.”
O’Neill also talked about the extreme expense and difficulty of trying to stop the Transource project once the regulatory process has started.
Although Harford legislators got several bills passed in the 2018 session expected to improve the process for future power line projects, but none apply retroactively to the Independence Energy Connection.
O’Neill said utility representatives have said Maryland’s current regulatory processes work and should be followed.
“Hello!” she exclaimed. “The process costs a lot of money, and we have a project that is already shown to be a failed project.”
“What we want to do is be smart about it and create legislation that stops the process before it begins,” O’Neill added.
Hankins said she is not opposed to building electric transmission lines, but “there are ways that it can be done where it’s not hurtful, and right now the process is very hurtful.”
Hankins said she recently spoke with an “ independent market monitor,” who works with PJM. She learned from the monitor that electric congestion “is fleeting” and pops up in different parts of the grid.
“You’re always going to be chasing congestion; you’re never doing to be able to solve it totally,” she said. “I think legislation has to be in place to protect citizens from having their livelihoods destroyed.”
Three independent experts reported to the Pennsylvania Office of Consumer Advocate, via written testimony earlier this year, that the IEC is unnecessarily considering current demands on the electric grid and would be too expensive for PJM.
Those reports also stated that energy efficiency and renewable power resources are viable alternatives, plus, the transmission lines could be placed on available infrastructure.
The same research also determined the project could increase costs for consumers in eastern and central Pennsylvania while only creating slight savings in the western part of the state.
“It’s going to be very difficult for the Pennsylvania judges to approve a project — which will involve condemnation — that increases the costs,” O’Neill said.
But both Transource and PJM have said their ongoing cost/benefit analysis of the project concluded it remains necessary and economically viable and will, in addition to providing an estimated $866 million in congestion savings for consumers, “address significant reliability issues that are emerging on the regional transmission system, including the potential overload of a key high-voltage line that carries electricity across the Pennsylvania-Maryland border.”
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission is scheduled to hold evidentiary hearings in February, and O’Neill noted the ruling can be appealed, if the commission denies Transource’s application.
Maryland’s Public Service Commission is scheduled to hold evidentiary hearings in April, preceded by public hearings. Officials have recommended those hearings be held in December or next March, according to the PSC website.
O’Neill and Hankins also continued their push for local legislators to pursue a requirement in Annapolis that power line developers consider existing infrastructure first.
O’Neill said expert testimony confirmed “that which was obvious to the observer,” that existing infrastructure in the area can carry Transource lines.
She also pushed the legislators for greater protection for preserved farms, saying the preservation agreements allow that land to be condemned, if the PSC approves a project in that right of way.
Del. Mary Ann Lisanti, a Democrat, proposed working with the Harford County Council and the state legislature to craft policies that ensure local governments can determine if power line projects are consistent with their comprehensive land-use plans, plus classify overhead transmission lines as a special exception in the county zoning code. Developers must get approval from the county’s Board of Appeals, or the County Council, for a special exception project, according to county code.
“That gives us the local ability to deal with Harford County’s problem immediately,” she said.
Lisanti said she and her colleagues ran into problems in the previous legislative session when they tried to “dictate to the energy companies that they have to do something in a certain way.”
“Where we were able to make progress was when we were able to give them flexibility,” Lisanti said.