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Owner won't pull plug on controversial Harford power line project

The regional power grid operator serving Maryland and adjoining states in the region said Thursday it will continue with its controversial project to construct new overhead electric transmission lines in northwestern Harford County and neighboring York County, Pa.

PJM Interconnection, the grid operator, said it undertook a required annual cost/benefit review of the Independence Energy Connection, as the project is called, and determined it is still viable. The project is being developed for PJM by Transource Energy of Columbus, Ohio.

“PJM recently completed its annual review of the Transource project. Our thorough analysis of the many factors that go into benefits and costs concluded that the benefits continue to justify the costs,” Steve Herling, vice president for planning for PMJ, said in a written statement released late Thursday afternoon.

“The analysis considered factors such as recent load and congestion forecasts, current cost estimates, power flow projections, topology, inter-regional modeling, future fuel prices and generation interconnections,” Herling stated. “As a result of the findings, the project will remain in PJM’s long-term Regional Transmission Expansion Plan.”

“To be included in the plan, the benefit/cost ratio must be at least 1.25, meaning the benefits must outweigh the costs by at least 25 percent,” Herling continued. “Our recent analysis found that the project’s current benefit/cost ratio is 1.42. The project is estimated to save consumers $866.2 million over 15 years in congestion costs.”

“Transource was pleased that PJM's assessment again affirmed the need for the Independence Energy Connection project,” Todd Burns, director at Transource, said in a separate statement. “The additional electric reliability benefits that were identified make this project even more beneficial to the people in this region.”

“We continue to work with landowners as the regulatory process continues and look forward to building state-of-the-art facilities to reinforce the electric grid and create access to low-cost electricity for consumers in the mid-Atlantic region,” Burns stated.

Residents on both sides of the Maryland/Pennsylvania border whose farms and residential properties are along the path of the proposed new power lines have been fighting against the project since it was unveiled in last year. Between 3and 4 miles of the line will cross Harford County west of Route 23, ending at the Conastone switching station in Norrisville.

Opponents say the proposed power lines, 230 kV carried on 135-foot high steel monopoles, will disturb fragile environmental areas and cross a number of properties that are under some form of agricultural or conservation preservation program. They’ve challenged the claims of the developers that the project will benefit consumers and have pressed them to locate the new power lines along existing utility rights-of-way, of which there are already many.

The opposition has garnered the support of elected officials on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, most of whom are running for re-election this year, including Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who said the project developer hired by PJM, Transource Energy, and the grid operator should look at other options.

Objection from residents

Some opponents were hopeful the cost/benefit review would cause PJM to scuttle the project.

Harford resident Aimee O’Neill, co-chair of STOP Transource Power Lines MD Inc., said she and several other members of the community organization attended a meeting of PJM’s Transmission Energy Advisory Committee at PJM’s offices in Norristown, Pa., Thursday.

The updated analysis for the IEC project was announced during that meeting, O’Neill said Friday afternoon. She said that update was made, however, “without the benefit of updated cost data from Transource.”

The project has a projected cost of $320 million, according to prior Transource announcements. The company must take into account, according to O’Neill, increased costs of materials because of new U.S. tariffs, higher labor costs and “ as well as the cost of defending the project against the objection of 90 percent of the property owners.”

“This [PJM] re-evaluation has little bearing on the actual outcome because it is not based on updated cost information from Transource,” O’Neill said. “They simply have not provided it yet.”

There are two legs to Independence Energy Connection, the one in Harford and York counties, and another in western Maryland and west central Pennsylvania. In addition to building new power lines, the project entails construction of new switching/relay stations, including one along the Susquehanna River in York County.

PJM and Transource have maintained their project, which requires approval from state regulatory agencies in both states – the Maryland Public Service Commission and Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission – will eliminate current power delivery congestion in the regional system and ultimately save consumers money.

But on Thursday, PJM’s Herling’s statement added, “There are additional benefits to the project, however, that extend beyond the economics.”

“During our recent review, PJM found that the Transource project also will 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,” he stated. “Without the additional transmission capacity provided by the Transource project, the system could face serious violations of federal reliability standards, which would require additional measures to address.’

Previously, officials with PJM and for Transource have denied Independence Energy Connection was undertaken to address grid reliability problems, saying it only was necessary to improve the delivery of electricity in order to save consumers money.

“PJM recognizes that many stakeholders’ interests intersect on this project and, in fulfilling our federally mandated role, we believe it’s important that those stakeholders understand the project’s purpose and benefits,” Herling stated. “The interstate high-voltage transmission system is a shared resource, and consumers including homeowners, tenants, businesses and industrial plants throughout the PJM footprint benefit from a robust network that provides reliable and affordable electricity across the region.”

Transource sent out a project update last week addressing some of it called “misinformation and recurring questions we had heard through public input.”

O’Neill and other STOP Transource members will meet with the Maryland Office of People’s Counsel Sept. 21. The Office of People’s Counsel is a state agency that represents Maryland consumers on matters that come before the Public Service Commission, as well as federal regulators and courts, according to the agency website.

“Our goal is to convince the government that it is in the government’s best interest to step in and exert what influence they can,” O’Neill said.

Opponents have been working to convince Transource to build its lines on existing power poles, rather than build new transmission lines from scratch, a proposal the company has rejected.

“Existing facilities identified in the project area can accommodate only one circuit,” according to a fact sheet on the Independence Energy Connection project website. “Transource’s electrical solution requires a fully utilized double-circuit configuration.”

O’Neill said Maryland should have legislation requiring new high-voltage power lines to be built on existing infrastructure.

“What STOP Transource is doing is bringing to light the fact that the process is flawed, and that this is a new energy environment and that the state of Maryland and its legislators need to make changes in our legislation so as to prevent people from having to go through this time and time again,” she said.

avought@theaegis.com

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