PSC rethinks power line plan

ALBANY–The state Public Service Commission (PSC) is poised to “reexamine” its plans to authorize new, higher wattage power lines from upstate power producers to downstate customers as a way to relieve what the agency has describes as congestion on the power grid.

Three of the four proposals for the lines, all from commercial companies, would route the towers and lines through portions of Columbia and northern Dutchess counties. But communities along the proposed routes have challenged the plans and found one expert who has presented data suggesting there is no need for new power lines.

The companies bidding on the project have been asked to submit new information that the PSC needs to conduct its reexamination, with the deadline for that additional data set for Monday, January 19. The PSC plans to complete its report no later than June 10 of this year and follow its release with an “all-parties technical conference scheduling a technical conference” to present its determination as to the extent of need. The agency will also allow interested parties to question the findings and offer additional comments.

The plan to improve the transmission system is part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Highway Energy initiative and is meant to fix anticipated bottlenecks of energy transmission to New York City and the surrounding area by upgrading power lines to transmit 1,000 megawatts (MW) of power from western New York to the downstate area. The upgrades proposed by the applicants seeking PSC approval to build the lines could mean a doubling of the height of current towers and expanding rights-of-way by the power of eminent domain. The lines would run from west of Albany to a power substation in Dutchess County.

Citizen groups, local governments and individual residents have questioned the need for the project, called for the consideration of alternative solutions, and argued that the project would harm farms, property values, historic viewsheds, and compromise health and the environment. The Hudson Valley Smart Energy Coalition (HVSEC), an alliance of various community groups working together on the power line issue, has been a leading voice challenging the project as the PSC has conducted its review of the proposals.

In a December 12 press release, the PSC said the transmission congestion is contributing to reliability concerns and higher rates for customers in the lower Hudson Valley. The agency says upgrading the transmission system could improve efficiency and reduce health and environmental risks. But the PSC now seems to have taken a step back from its previous position.

“After carefully considering comments from stakeholders and members  of the public, and in light of other proceedings related to improving energy efficiency and modernizing the grid, we will carefully reexamine the need for transmission upgrades to address existing transmission congestion problems,” said PSC Chair Audrey Zibelman in the release. “This thorough review will help provide greater clarity to the process and to the communities in the impacted areas.”

Ian Solomon, head of Farmers and Families for Claverack (FFC), a member of the coalition, wrote in an release last week that while the PSC’s announcement to review need is a win for the coalition, the work of opponents is only beginning.

“The developers and possibly the state will dedicate substantial resources in attempts to prove a need for the project,” wrote Mr. Solomon. “We’ve got to continue showing that not only are these new power lines not needed, they would damage community assets–and more and more Hudson Valley residents are opposed to them.”

Last October Dr. Gidon Eshel, Ph.D., a noted geophysicist and Bard College research professor, produced an analysis of the need for additional power and discussed it at a public meeting in Churchtown. His figures indicate there is no need for additional transmission line capacity at least for the next several decades.

The PSC’s press release also announces the approval of a new formula for assessing customers for the costs associated with the new lines. The new procedure requires the four developers to resubmit new proposals based on six criteria the PSC has announced they will base examinations of proposals on:
1.  Amount of increased transfer capability
2. Cost to ratepayers
3. Electric systems impact, emission reductions, and production cost impact
4. Extent of new rights-of-way necessary
5. Use of innovative technology to enhance capability or reduce physical footprint of the project
6. Assessment of environmental compatibility, including visual impacts.

The allocation scheme approved by PSC would place 75% of the project cost on the customers who benefit economically from reduced congestion. The other 25% would be spread over all customers. According to the PSC, this means that downstate customers would pay about 90% of the cost, with the rest paid by upstate electricity customers.

At the Claverack Town Board meeting last week, Councilwoman Katy Cashen said the new procedure means “the clock has started” on beginning power line approval process again.

Mr. Solomon said in his release that the four developers have submitted their new proposals, which the FFC and HVSEC are currently reviewing. He wrote that preliminary cost estimates of the different developers’ plans are: Boundless Energy – $650 million; NextEra – from $135 million to $554.5 million; North America Transmission – from $201 million to $534 million; and NYTO – from $102 million to $1.18 billion. According to Mr. Solomon, ranges were given because the developers “broke up their proposals into pieces that could, presumably, be mixed-and-matched.”

More information on the project can be found on the PSC’s website at www.dps.ny.gov (the Case Number is 13-E-0488) and on HVSEC’s website at hvsec.org.

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