EDITORIAL: Power lines affect us all

ICE! WHO NEEDS THE STUFF? OK, polar bears and penguins, but what do they know about sidewalks? Windshields? Roofs?! People old enough to refer to a season like this as “the way winter used to be” understand this. So how come last month was the fourth warmest January since people started keeping accurate records?

The polar vortex, our unwelcome guest this season, is long overdue for a one-way trip home. But the temperature data don’t lie. January’s warmth reflects worldwide measurements consistent with patterns and predictions for a changing climate. Our shocked reaction to this year’s prolonged cold and snow in our region–weather that was typical just a few decades ago–serves as a reminder of how fast the surface of the Earth is heating up and how likely it is that the trend will continue.

We media folks have focused this winter on the cost and availability of natural gas, fuel oil and electricity. The need for the first two will fade soon (let’s hope), but use of electricity peaks in summer, and if we see summer temperatures as extreme as the cold spells we’re experiencing now, the demand could strain the ability of the power grid to provide electricity. The power companies know this and are making plans to address it. Those plans involve the land of people who live in Ghent. And in Stuyvesant and Stockport, Greenport, Claverack, Livingston, Clermont and Gallatin.

The last six of these towns lie along on routes where three companies have proposed stringing new high voltage (345 Kilovolt) lines that connect upstate power producers to customers in and around New York City. Ghent is a different proposition. In Ghent the power company NYSEG is asking the state for permission to run a line across the town to serve as a backup source of power for southern parts of this county. It sounds prudent and small enough, at 11.5 miles, to be a routine project unworthy of much attention, or so the company may have hoped. But this week Ghent emerged as the case that will test whether citizens can make a large corporation and government regulators behave a little more like they live on the same planet as the rest of us.

Protect Ghent, the non-profit local group led by Koethi Zan, simply wants the company to rethink how it will get power across the town. Instead of huge poles and high cables that distort the town’s historic patterns of settlement and agriculture with new rights of way and easements that slice across the landscape, Protect Ghent has suggested better solutions. One option involves using a lower voltage cable that hangs from standard utility poles along existing highways. There may be others, including burying the line.

The stakes were raised this week when the Preservation League of New York State, a private group that offers technical assistance and funding to historic and cultural preservation projects around the state, stepped in to help the local effort to change how power companies route power through our backyards. Preservation League President Jay DiLorenzo called the power lines a major industrial development project that endangers the historic and cultural heritage of the whole county. The league’s successes over the last four decades should give companies like NYSEG reason to rethink their plans, putting more weight to the concerns of people who live near or below these lines. But don’t count on it.

Last December, when the county Board of Supervisors called on Governor Cuomo and the state Public Service Commission to conduct an independent analysis of new power line options, the board listed the reasons why people are wary of new overhead lines that expand the pathways already used to carry electricity through this county. The supervisors said new lines would “decrease forest cover and wetlands, reduce agricultural production, disturb historic homes and properties, disrupt the bucolic nature of the town[s] and negatively impact tourism…”

That’s good as far as it goes, but here are two follow-up questions the board didn’t ask: Where will this expansion end? Who will set the long-term limits?

Whether you frame the questions in local terms or global, none of us can afford to leave these decisions to power companies. No one will have more impact on power companies’ behavior than energized citizens like Protect Ghent and the groups that have formed in Livingston and Claverack. Their homes, businesses and quality of life are at risk. Like it or not, the risks for the rest of us are pretty much the same.

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