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One Transmission Line Scratched, Conservationists Hope for Highlands Cancellation

Opponents of power line through heart of NJ Highlands take heart from suspension of similar project.

With the suspension of another high-voltage power line project by the regional grid operator, opponents of the controversial Susquehanna-Roseland transmission line, which cuts through the heart of the New Jersey Highlands, are hoping that project will be the next to be cancelled.

In a press release, the board of PJM Interconnection, which runs the regional power grid, cited the outlook for a slower economic recovery as the reason behind its order directing the transmission owners to suspend efforts to build the Potomac-Appalachian Transmission Highline (PATH), a project connecting a substation in West Virginia to another in Maryland.

A preliminary analysis by the staff of PJM suggests the need for the line has receded into the future. That decision echoes the argument made by conservationists who have waged an ongoing battle to stop Public Service Electric & Gas (PSE&G) from building the 45-mile line in northwest New Jersey.

A portion of the Susquehanna-Roseland project was held up last year when PSE&G withdrew applications for permits it was seeking for the $650 million transmission line from the National Park Service. At the time, PSE&G said other power projects it was undertaking could maintain the reliability of the power grid.

Hostile Environment

The suspension of the PATH project, which would have allowed relatively cheap electricity from coal-fired power plants in the South to be wheeled to East Coast markets, reflects the increasingly contentious nature of building high-voltage power lines in the densely populated eastern seaboard. While power suppliers and grid operators insist the projects are necessary to maintain the reliability of the grid, critics argue that building highly expensive transmission lines ignores the strides states have made in developing cleaner sources of electricity and cutting power consumption.

"Susquehanna-Roseland was never needed," said Julia Somers, executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, which has opposed the project. "It wasn’t needed when the state Board of Public Utilities decided it was necessary; it isn’t needed now; and it won’t be needed in the future," Somers said.

Somers argued that the slow economic recovery is the "public face’’ PJM put on its reason for suspending the project. "I don’t think it’s the economy; it’s more profound than that," she said, citing the growing development of solar and other alternative forms of energy as well as aggressive efforts to reduce energy consumption.

Aggressively Solar

New Jersey is aggressively promoting solar and wind energy, particularly solar. In recent months, the state has been installing solar installations at the rate of about 25 megawatts each month, which would result in an annual installation of about 300 megawatts a year.

PJM officials said the decision to suspend work on the PATH project was a result of its annual review of transmission expansion plans. It said its decision affects only that project, although it will continue to review other plans.

"We will make an independent analysis," said Michael Kormos, senior vice president for operations, in a phone interview. "At this point, we have looked at Susquehanna-Roseland a number of times. Even with all the changes that have happened in the last couple of years, the need has consistently stayed there."

PSE&G echoed those comments in a statement. "Susquehanna-Roseland is a reliability project the need for which has been determined three times by PJM, and the need for the project continues to exist. PJM annually reevaluates the need for all of its backbone projects, including Susquehanna-Roseland, and takes into account many factors in its analysis. PSE&G remains committed to building this needed reliability project," the statement said.

For PSEG, the parent of the utility, the project and others reflect a huge shift in where capital expenditures have been spent, increasing investments on transmission lines instead of in upgrading its fleet of unregulated power plants. From 2010 to 2013, capital expenditures on transmission lines is expected to jump form $350 million to $1.1 billion.

Analysts say the shift is a reflection of the depressed prices in the wholesale electricity markets and the higher rates of return that can be gained on transmission projects from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The commission generally approves higher rates of return than state regulators on distribution projects.

Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, welcomed the announcement suspending the PATH project. "The same reasons the PATH project was canceled is the same reason why Susquehanna-Roseland should be stopped," he said. "These lines not only are unnecessary, but they are a big waste of money. We’d be better off investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency."

Opponents of the PATH project were equally thrilled with the suspension of the transmission proposal.

Earthjustice attorney Abigail Dillen, who is representing the Sierra Club in ongoing litigation over the line said, "PJM is basically admitting what we have said from the start -- that there are better and cheaper alternatives to building a $2 billion transmission line. Demand response and other clean energy initiatives are working, so let's not rush to build a terribly expensive project that only entrenches dependence on dirty coal plants."

The Highlands coalition is asking the state to reconsider its decision to approve the power line, and also has gotten involved in a highly controversial case before the federal agency dealing with efforts to build new power plants in the state. In the complaint filed with FERC, the power companies say that demand for electricity had decreased substantially in the PJM region and that PJM now predicts that the amount of electricity demand that it had previously forecast for NJ in 2014 will not be reached until 2020, at the earliest, according to Kevin Pflug, an attorney for the Eastern Environmental Law Center, which is representing the coalition.

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