EDITORIAL: County has role in power line debate

FARMERS AND FAMILIES of Claverack is a grassroots organization that, like a similar group in Livingston, has just formed in an effort to challenge plans by several large firms to build new, high voltage transmission lines. The lines would either run down the length of Columbia County from Schodack to the Dutchess County Town of Pleasant Valley in one case, or else they’d cross the Hudson River from Leeds (near Catskill) into Greenport and through Livingston on their way south to Dutchess County.

In many places the lines would follow existing power line rights of way. But some of those old paths are not wide enough for another set of towers, so the companies could use the state’s power of eminent domain and take the land they need–regardless of whether the owners are willing to sell it. Government needs such powers for projects that benefit the health, safety or general welfare of the public. But taking private land against the will of a law abiding citizen is one of the creepiest things government can do. It’s a power that should be used sparingly.

The new high voltage lines, like the ones already here, would transport electricity south to New York City and Long Island. Together, the city and the Long Island account for just over half of the total annual demand for electricity statewide. But there aren’t enough power plants downstate to meet the demand there. Areas of the state north of the city, on the other hand, have a surplus of power, so the upstate surplus gets shipped on high voltage lines to the metropolitan area.

Grumble all you want to about those wasteful “city people,” who can’t get enough of our fresh grown upstate electricity. Just keep in mind that city dwellers use a lot less energy per person than the rest of us.

Here are a couple of other inconvenient facts. A report issued a couple of years ago by the state Independent System Operator, which handles the allocation of electric power for the whole state, found that 84% of the high voltage transmission lines in the state were built before 1980. Just 2% has been added since the year 2000.

With demand for electricity rising again, the report also describes “transmission congestion” in this region, meaning that the old lines may be reaching the limit of how much power they can carry, creating an electricity bottleneck in our back yard.

So face it: The state needs a power line upgrade, and Columbia and Dutchess counties are a target area. But that does not resolve how best to increase the supply of electricity while having the least impact on communities along the way. The issues are both technical and political.
The local response to technical part is already under way, with the Farmers and Friends groups along with Scenic Hudson and others trying to round up experts who can suggest better ways to improve the power line infrastructure.

The power companies, meantime, are stuck in a rut, unable or unwilling to propose more efficient, reliable, secure and environmentally sound ways to transmit power. They act like it’s still 1980.

In his State of the State address, Governor Andrew Cuomo reaffirmed his proposal for an Energy Highway while expressing concern that the proposals might “intrude” on local communities. Is it coincidence that after his brief mention the power line application review process has come to a screeching halt as the staff of the state Public Service Commission seeks guidance from the commission itself?

That’s hard to swallow. This is an election year. Why would the governor want to alienate his upstate constituents before the November vote. The upstate reaction to his gun control law and the anger of the Common Corps Curriculum already are giving him plenty to think about as he seeks a second term. He doesn’t need power lines, too.

So for anyone who wants to influence the governor’s position on where to set the bar for protecting communities as the lines are rebuilt, the window of maximum effect is open now and for the next nine months.

At the same time those who care about limiting efforts to create a new multi-lane energy highway through Columbia County must also demand that the county Board of Supervisors lend official support to the opposition movement. No matter where in the county the lines would run, this a county-wide issue, and the board has a responsibility to ensure private utilities and the state get it right before the current starts to flow.

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