Transmission & Power Lines

If you’re concerned about a transmission line anywhere in the USA then contact CEDS at 410-654-3021 (call-text) or Help@ceds.org for an initial no-cost discussion of strategy options. Please don’t hesitate. Delay almost always decreases the likelihood of success.

Community & Environmental Defense Services (CEDS) is assisting community groups and nonprofit organizations throughout the United States with concerns regarding existing and proposed transmission lines. While transmission lines can be a good way to maintain reliable electric service in some instances, far too often major new lines are proposed because of the tremendous profits they can produce.

This website summarizes the key issues associated with major transmission lines along with strategies for defeating poorly conceived projects. If you have any questions, including how CEDS can assist you with transmission-line related concerns, contact us at 410-654-3021 or Help@ceds.org.

Defeating Bad Transmission Line Projects

When CEDS first became involved in these cases we intensively researched how citizens fared in transmission line battles throughout the USA. This research showed a pattern we had seen with numerous other issues:

Citizens generally lost when they fought with just lawyers and experts, but the probability of success tripled when legal action was coupled with an aggressive political strategy.

Political action makes success far more likely because:

  • publicity is generated well beyond that normally resulting from a purely legal strategy;
  • decision-makers are more inclined to decide technical-legal questions in favor of citizens, particularly on close-calls;
  • it enhances fund-raising and volunteer recruitment;
  • it increases the likelihood legislative bodies will change laws in ways that resolve citizen concerns; and
  • when done well, political action puts in place elected officials and advocacy groups which discourage future proposals involving poorly-planned projects.

Combining aggressive political action with Smart Legal Strategies – another CEDS innovation – further increases the probability of success. We call the combined approach Politically Oriented Advocacy. This approach dramatically increases the likelihood citizens will win transmission line cases. Consider the following example.

The Mid-Atlantic Power Pathway (MAPP) is a 500 kilovolt backbone line originally supposed to run 230 miles from Virginia, through Maryland and Delaware, to end in New Jersey. When CEDS began assisting citizens with MAPP in late 2008, State officials were all of the same opinion – the transmission line was urgently needed to keep the lights on. We drafted an Initial Strategy Analysis setting forth options for ensuring MAPP would not harm nearby residents. A principle component of the analysis was an aggressive political organizing strategy along with the technical analysis required to support our arguments. The attitude of decision-makers changed dramatically as we implemented the strategy over the ensuing months. In fact, recently nine State experts registered their opposition to MAPP. These experts were hired by some of the same agencies who’d strongly supported MAPP a year before.

Normally citizens pay upwards of $400,000 for just expert witness testimony in transmission line cases. In MAPP our clients paid but $5,000 or 1% of the total cost of the expert testimony. MAPP was put on hold by the State agencies for four months and the Delaware portion was indefinitely postponed. 

A critical component of Politically Oriented Advocacy is not just opposing something but coming up with a way that makes things better. In the case of transmission lines our better way has taken the form of Comprehensive Energy Planning. Few states have a plan which: 1) shows future energy needs, 2) identifies all reasonable options for meeting those needs, 3) compares those options with respect to cost, reliability, environmental effects, etc., then 4) selects those energy choices which provide the greatest benefits with the fewest negative effects. While not right for every situation, this form of planning does show how citizens can avert an imminent threat and use their political clout to bring about a better future for all.

CEDS prepared a map and table showing the location and outcome of ten of the recent transmission line campaigns we researched. To view the map and table click the following text: Recent Transmission Successes.

Keeping Routing Studies Honest

How do you ensure that a transmission line routing siting study fairly analyze all reasonable alignments to identify the best option?

Well, the first step is to understand how an analysis can be manipulated to select the route the applicant prefers vs. that which is best for the rest of us. With this understanding you can determine if the analysis was honest. And if not prove it to decision-makers.

CEDS has created the Siting Game for your use in understanding how siting factors and other analysis variables can be manipulated to make one route appear preferable. The Excel-based Siting Game is posted at: ceds.org/SitingGame.xlxs.

The Game consists of 17 siting factors common to transmission line proposals and begins with values assigned to six candidate routes. When you have a moment try altering the siting factor values to see how easily one of the six candidate routes can be made to appear preferable to the other five.

To learn more about how these analyses work and how to keep them honest, see the Siting Game Excel worksheet labeled How the Siting Game Works.

Electromagnetic Fields (EMF) & Health

There is a growing consensus that the electromagnetic field (EMF) emitted by transmission lines pose a genuine health threat. For example, in 2006 the State of Maryland concluded: “Studies have consistently shown increased risk for childhood leukemia associated with ELF magnetic fields…” A 2005 study conducted in England and Wales showed that one out of every hundred or so cases of childhood leukemia occurring within 2,000 feet of a high-voltage (≥132 kilovolt) transmission line was due to EMF from the line. A number of states now require applicants to show that EMF from proposed transmission lines will not exceed safety thresholds. The following publications provide further detail on EMF and transmission lines.

FERC Backstop Authority

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 provided the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) with the authority to override State action on certain transmission line projects. This authority, known as backstop, applies to transmission lines located within one of two National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors (NIETC). FERC had interpreted the Act to allow the Commission to approve a NIETC project if a state denied an application or failed to act within one year of receiving an application.

In February 2009 the Piedmont Environmental Council won a decision in the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals which restricted backstop authority to instances where a state fails to act within one year. In other words, if a state denies a NIETC transmission line for legitimate reasons, then FERC backstop authority cannot be used to reverse the denial.

Need for New Transmission Lines

New transmission lines are usually justified with projections showing that the service area faces an imminent threat of blackouts or other electricity problems. After reviewing the findings from numerous independent evaluations of these projections, it is clear to CEDS that the threat is frequently overstated. Following are a couple of the more common shortcomings.

Flawed Growth Projections

This shortcoming results from reliance upon outdated electricity use projections based on long term trends showing continued growth well into the future. However, growth in electricity use has been slowing since 2002, it was flat in 2007-2008, then declined in 2009 (at least in the Mid-Atlantic states).

This trend is likely to continue due to increased efficiency caused by higher prices as well as state initiatives increasing demand-response and energy conservation. Even as the economy rebounds it is unlikely that growth in electricity use will return to pre-2002 levels.

In the near future utilities will begin supplying customers with advanced (smart) metering equipment which will accelerate conservation and further reduce peak-demand. And it is peak-demand which generally drives the supposed need for new transmission lines.

Flawed Modeling

Criteria for analyzing electric service reliability are established by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). Good utility planning practice dictates the use of not only accurate electricity use projections but sound modeling. However, the applicant need analyses we’ve reviewed frequently show several bad planning practices. First, realistic reductions in energy use through demand-response and conservation are not included. Second, proposed increases in generating capacity are not included even though the increase meets NERC criteria for inclusion. Third, projections are based upon highly unreliable extrapolations rather then the required contingency analyses. Fourth, alternatives such as upgrades to existing transmission lines and substations are not thoroughly evaluated then compared to the proposed backbone project.

How Do Transmission Lines Affect Property Value

There have been a number of studies regarding the effect of transmission lines on property value. Taken as a whole, these studies show varying effects in terms of dollar amount, distance and duration. The following studies show a 4% to 25% decline in the value of properties located 1,000-feet or more from a transmission line.

Socialization of Transmission Line Costs

FERC policy allows Regional Transmission Organizations (RTO) to spread the cost for larger transmission line projects (≥500 kilovolt) over their entire service area. For example, PJM is the RTO for a 13-state area and Washington, D.C. All customers within this area pay part of the cost for building four new backbone lines estimated to cost $15 billion even though the lines benefit but three PJM states. This policy is known as socialization.

Those who do not directly benefit from one of these projects question why they should pay even a small part of the cost. In August 2009 the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals heard a case challenging socialization. The 7th Circuit remanded the case back to a lower court. Depending upon the outcome, this case may overturn the current approach to socialization and force only those who directly benefit to pay for backbone projects.

Transmission Line Basics

Following are some good publications introducing the basics of electricity and transmission lines.

Transmission Lines: Coal-By-Wire, Greenhouse Gases & Other Air Pollution

Transmission lines can increase emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases indirectly by relieving the congestion which limits the flow of electricity from coal-fired power plants. Generally, coal is our dirtiest source of electricity.

For example, four “backbone” transmission line projects are proposed for construction in the mid-Atlantic states: MAPP, PATH, TrAIL, and Susquehanna-Roseland. The Sierra Club retained an expert to assess the air pollution impacts of one of these lines – PATH. The expert found that this one line would cause coal-fired power plants to increase production sufficiently to pump another eight million tons a year of climate-changing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The expert also found that sulfur and nitrogen releases would increase substantially.

Undergrounding: Burying Transmission Lines

Placing new transmission lines underground resolves much of the visual impact and greatly reduces electromagnetic field strength. But this option is more expensive with one study indicating that burying a line may cost ten times more then an overhead installation. However, when the following costs of an overhead are summed for the 100-year transmission line lifespan burial is a bargain, at least for those who must live with the project: property value loss, decreased farm and forest productivity, health costs, tourism income losses, visual impacts, environmental damage, etc.

The cost difference does not appear as great for High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) lines. An HVDC circuit is buried in a trench 1.5-feet in width with a separation distance of 15- to 30-feet between circuits. Junction boxes are placed every 1,000- to 2,000-feet to join sections of HVDC cable. The applicants in the 500-kilovolt MAPP case produced estimates showing that buried HVDC was about twice as expensive as an overhead installation. Following is a cost comparison for the 745-kilovolt PATH project:

  • $6.4 million/mile = Overhead AC
  • $8.8 million/mile = Overhead HVDC
  • $23.7 million/mile = Underground HVDC (61% of which is converter station cost which may be an apples to oranges comparison)

Visual Impacts

The towers supporting a transmission line may be 200-feet tall or more. The right-of-way, which may measure 50- to 600-feet in width, is frequently cleared of all vegetation except grass or other low-growing plants. Depending upon topography, forests, and other factors a transmission line may be visible from a distance of three miles or more. In fact, those who study the effect of new transmission lines on views commonly begin their analysis three miles out. When passing through forest, a transmission line corridor appear as an ugly gash across the landscape. Such a scene detracts from the beauty of an otherwise natural view. When located near a community, transmission lines can lend an industrial feel to what otherwise tranquil residential neighborhood.  For further detail visit the CEDS Preserving Views webpage.

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