The federal government yesterday announced a new pilot program to expedite construction of transmission projects, selecting the highly controversial Susquehanna-Roseland proposal, which cuts through the Delaware Water Gap and New Jersey Highlands, as one of seven chosen nationwide.
In a conference call from Washington, D.C., top Obama administration officials called modernizing the nation's power grid a key to a clean energy economy and creating thousands of jobs, while making the power system more reliable and delivering savings to consumers.
The selection of the Susquehanna-Roseland power line might speed up the final review of the 145-mile project, which has been delayed until the National Park Service completes a draft environmental impact statement, expected to be finished by the end of the year or early in 2012. The National Park Service permit is needed because the 45-mile link in New Jersey crosses the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area and Appalachian National Scenic Trail.
Although it follows an existing right-of-way, the line has been bitterly fought by conservation groups, who argue it is not needed given falling electricity consumption. They also fear the line, if built, would result in more dirty coal power being imported into the state from Pennsylvania and areas west of New Jersey.
"I am disappointed by the decision of the Obama Administration to fast-track the Susquehanna-Roseland project in the name of renewable energy or modernization of the grid, as this project does neither. Plain and simple, it is a conduit for 'coal-by-wire' from dirty power plants to the west of us – under the guise of "Project Mountaineer" -- a profit-driven scheme of big coal being supported by PJM Interconnection,'' said Scott Olson, deputy mayor of Byram Township.
"The purpose of the Susquehanna-Roseland line is to bring in dirty coal power from Pennsylvania. The president is wrong; this project is not about renewable energy and will not create long term jobs. The Susquehanna-Roseland line undermines green energy jobs as we invest in antiquated technology instead of a smart grid, energy efficiency, and demand-response programs," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
By establishing a rapid response team for transmission projects, the administration hopes to coordinate permitting decisions among various federal agencies, making the system easier and quicker to navigate. Lauren Azar, senior advisor to the Secretary of Energy, said the administration hopes to complete review of the Susquehanna-Roseland project in a year.
Julia Somers, executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, argued that Susquehanna-Roseland does not belong in a category of projects undergoing rapid review, especially "when it clearly has such serious problems."
But Public Service Electric and Gas (PSE&G) officials welcomed the announcement.
"It's clear the administration recognizes the importance of this transmission system upgrade that will maintain electric reliability for millions of people in our region," said Ralph LaRossa, president of PSE&G. "Since this project was announced, we have been working closely with state and federal agencies such as the National Park Service to ensure a timely review and approval of permits that are needed before work can begin. We fully understand and support a thorough assessment. At the same time, utilities need the ability to make these critical system upgrades in a timely manner. The Rapid Response Team is a welcome addition to the federal permitting process."
Despite the controversy over its route, the line has been backed by the Christie administration, business interests, and the PJM Interconnection, the operators of the regional power grid. If built, many energy executives argue that it will drive down energy prices by reducing congestion on the power grid, which has spiked electric bills for customers in New Jersey.
According to a study by PJM in November 2010, gross congestion costs would increase, primarily in New Jersey, by $160 million in 2012 and by $280 million in 2013 because of the delays in building the high-voltage power line. Those projections are significant because consumers in New Jersey already are expected to pay $1 billion in added electric bills this year because of congestion on the grid and steep capacity prices. Capacity prices ensure that there is enough power to meet demand when it peaks.
The Susquehanna-Roseland power line is a joint project of PPL Electric Utilities in Pennsylvania and PSE&G in New Jersey. The line will connect substations in Berwick, PA, and Roseland, NJ. The project already has been approved by both the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) and the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission. In addition to maintaining electric system reliability, the Susquehanna-Roseland project will create more than 2,000 jobs during the multiyear construction of the 145-mile line.