The National Park Service issued its final environmental impact statement on the Susquehanna-Roseland high-voltage power line on Friday, a step that could lead construction to begin on the transmission line as early as this fall.
The decision, although expected, marks another step forward for the much-contested project, which runs 145 miles mostly along an existing transmission line in eastern Pennsylvania to Roseland in Essex County.
First proposed by PJM Interconnection, the operator of the regional power grid, in 2007 to address reliability problems in New Jersey, the billion dollar project has been bitterly opposed by environmental groups, primarily because its route traverses the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area and the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.
The route selected by the National Park Service (NPS) was proposed by the two utilities building the project, Public Service Electric & Gas and PPL Electric Utilities Corp. The next step in the process is a Record of Decision from the NPS, which is expected in about a month, followed by construction and right-of-way permits from the federal agency.
“This is another important milestone that moves this project forward,’’ said Kim Hanemann, vice president of delivery products and construction for Newark-based PSE&G. “We appreciate the timely release of this document to help keep us on schedule to have this key improvement to the electric grid in service for customers by summer 2015.’’
Despite opposition from conservationists, the project had overwhelming support from the business community, which views the line as a way to help lower high electricity costs in New Jersey. By one estimate, the line could save consumers more than $200 million a year by easing congestion on the power grid, a problem that can lead to extremely high prices for ratepayers.
The project also has the backing of the Obama administration, which last year selected the Susquehanna-Roseland line as one of seven proposals nationwide to be fast-tracked as part of an effort to modernize the country’s power grid. It also reflected goals of the state’s new Energy Master Plan, which recommended upgrading both the electric power grid and natural gas pipeline distribution system.
But opponents argued that the power line was unnecessary given the drop in electric power demand, coupled with efforts by the state to reduce energy use by consumers and its push to promote cleaner sources of electricity, such as solar and wind power.
Those arguments appeared to have been bolstered last month when PJM cancelled two huge transmission projects in the Mid-Atlantic region, saying a slow economy had reduced the projected growth in the use of electricity and new power plants, including two in New Jersey, were coming online to address reliability issues.
Still, it is unlikely PJM would cancel the Susquehanna-Roseland line, given the grid operator already included the project in its baseline capacity planning.
“I didn’t think it was in trouble,’’ said Paul Patterson, an energy analyst with Glenrock Associates. “It was much further along the line in the process.’’
In addition to maintaining the reliability of the electric grid, the transmission project is expected to create about 2,000 jobs during construction.
In March, the NPS released a draft environmental impact statement, which backed the two utilities’ preferred alternative. That proposal called for building new 195-foot towers, more than double the height of the existing ones, and replacing the existing 230-kilovolt line with a 500-kilovolt one.
To deal with adverse effects of the project, the two utilities proposed spending more than $30 million to purchase land that would be added to the national recreation areas the line traverses.