By Emily Corio
After almost two years and more than ten WV public radio stories on the subject, the Public Service Commission (PSC) decided late Friday night to approve Allegheny Energy’s plan to build a high voltage power line, from Monongalia County in north central West Virginia to the eastern panhandle. The company’s nick-named the power line, TrAIL, short for Trans-Allegheny Interstate line. Once the line crosses into Virginia, it would hook into a proposed Dominion power line and supply electricity to northern Virginia, Washington DC, and surrounding areas.
Power line proposals are often met with opposition. It’s probably safe to say that no one wants a huge power line going across their property, not to mention the possibility of one of the massive steel towers that support these lines also going on their property.
Allegheny Energy held informational meetings back in December 2006. A Monongalia County resident said to me at that time, “Am I allowed to start off saying, I don’t want it go somewhere else?” Well, in fact, enough residents from southern Monongalia County got this message across to Allegheny Energy and the state’s Public Service Commission. The PSC wrote in its ruling that it’s “rarely received as large a volume of public comment as it has in this proceeding.” More than 750 letters of protest were filed with almost half of those penned by people who live in Monongalia County. There were also 100 letters of support. So, the line will go somewhere else, although it won’t be too far away.
The approved plan has the line paralleling an existing power line that runs through Taylor County. Fears about property values, health effects, and the environment have shifted a little farther south. I’ve heard in the last day that at least a couple of people who live along the line’s new route have not been contacted by Allegheny Energy, and in fact, just learned that the line will be coming through their property on Sunday when they read about the PSC’s approval in the local paper.
The route change was proposed by Allegheny Energy, the Public Service Commission staff, and the Consumer Advocate in a joint stipulation agreement released in April. Allegheny Energy agreed to the new route and agreed to give the state some payoffs (about $40 million worth) and in turn, the staff and consumer advocate agreed not to question the need for the line. Customers will still be billed for the cost of building the line, but that charge will be delayed until Allegheny Energy creates about 100 more jobs in the state.
I reported on Tuesday that the new power line creates the potential for more power plants. WVU Professor Tom Witt, who directs the university’s Bureau for Economic Development, said as many as four new coal fired power plants could be built in the region and pump electricity into the new line. Witt said new jobs would be created to build and maintain the plants and to mine coal nearby that the plants would burn. He said the estimated economic return to the region is close to $1 billion.
This figure represents opportunities for some and fears for others. Monongalia County resident Don Corwin said in response to the power line being approved and the possibility of more coal fired power plants being built, “what are we getting in return? We’re losing our property values. We’re losing our property rights. We’re losing our quality of life. Are all of these issues being addressed by our state government? We don’t think they are.”
Another, longer power line is also in the works, although a formal plan has not been submitted to the Public Service Commission. The “PATH” line would run from Charleston to Martinsburg.
Both the approved Allegheny power line and the proposed PATH line are within a National Interest Electric Transmission Corridor. Most of WV is in this corridor, one of two in the country. The corridor status means if a power company does not get state approval, it can ask the federal government to supercede the state’s decision. Governor Manchin wrote to the federal Department of Energy secretary when the corridor idea was proposed and shared his support for the corridor status and the two power line projects mentioned above. Later, Manchin said he does not support the federal government’s ability to override state decisions.
They DOE was given the authority to create the corridors and the power to use eminent domain for power lines in the Energy Bill of 2005.
Governor Manchin said this week that he will introduce a bill that would reduce rates for customers in counties where new power lines are built and somehow get the county commissions money out of the deal too; however, details on how Manchin plans to do this were not released.
But it doesn’t look like any deal is sealed yet; the Sierra Club plans to appeal the PSC’s decision on Allegheny Energy’s TrAIL line.