Judge Blocks JCP&L High-Voltage Line, Rebukes Utility on Project Plan

Tom Johnson | March 9, 2018 | Energy & Environment
JCP&L setback followed by governor's criticism calling for investigation into how New Jersey utilities handled outages during both nor'easters

transmission power grid
An administrative law judge yesterday rejected a $111 million, 10-mile, high-voltage line by Jersey Central Power & Light in Monmouth County, handing residents a rare victory in what is usually a losing battle: opposing transmission projects.

In stinging language, the judge, Gail Cookson, rebuked the utility for failing to demonstrate the project is needed, for not adequately reviewing other routes, and for ignoring alternatives to building a new transmission line.

The project, a 230-volt transmission line largely running along a North Jersey Coast rail line, has stirred intense opposition by residents, local officials, and state lawmakers ever since it was proposed two years ago. The 180-page decision now heads to the Board of Public Utilities, which can modify, reject, or accept the judge’s ruling.

The utility had argued the project would enhance reliability for hundreds of thousands of customers in the county, an issue of increased importance to officials and regulators. The project is designed to eliminate reliability violations identified by PJM Interconnection, the grid operator.

Nor’easter outages

Yesterday, in a separate matter, a frustrated Gov. Phil Murphy ordered an investigation into utilities’ response to two recent storms, the latter of which left hundreds of thousands of customers without power, most in JCP&L’s service territory. The utilities may have failed to properly prepare for the storms, the governor said.

“We strongly disagree that the JCP&L failed to prove the need for the Monmouth County Reliability Project (MCRP),” said Stefanie Walton, a spokeswoman for the company. “The initial decision contradicts the findings made by the regional grid operator and industry experts.”

But Rachael Kanapka, president of a group opposed to the project, Residents Against Giant Electric (RAGE), praised the ruling. “She (the judge) recognized how much this proposal defied common sense,” Kanapka said.

Power grid vs. people

The case pitted the demand for a more modern and resilient power grid against a group of residents, some of whom had defeated a similar proposal by JCP&L three decades before.

“Transmission lines make utilities money, and because of that, utilities propose them left and right,” Kanapka said, arguing the case exposed the need for a major overhaul of criteria for such projects and closer scrutiny of federal and regional regulations governing oversight of them.

The judge cited concerns about that process in reviewing the utility’s actions in mapping out a route and justification for the project.

“I find that the preponderance of credible evidence proves that JCP&L coerced studies to justify the MCRP as its preferred route months before any ‘problem’ was ever identified as needing a solution,” the court found.

In addition, the judge concluded “many of the alternative corridors were strawmen set up to fail,” referring to the utility’s look at options besides the North Jersey Coast right of way.

Any alternatives to the proposed project would cause significantly greater disruption to the community, environmental impacts, and project costs, Walton countered.

As for the utility’s proposal to build 210-foot monopoles along the preferred route, Cookson described it as “untried, untested and likely infeasible.”

Finally, the judge agreed with critics that there was falling demand for power in JCP&L’s service territory. “There is at the very least some considerable ‘breathing space’ to do further review and consideration of the MCRP and/or certain alternatives because of significant reduced-load reductions,” she said.