By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 28, 2007
Dominion Virginia Power, which is planning to build a high-voltage power line through scenic parts of Northern Virginia, is exaggerating the state's electricity problems to justify a project that benefits other areas, according to several industry specialists studying the issue.
The relatively modest problem for Virginia, they say, has better solutions than an unsightly cluster of cables atop a series of 125-foot steel towers, strung through some of the state's most beautiful and fiercely guarded open spaces.
"The proposed line is really intended to address mid-Atlantic transmission needs. I'm convinced it is a high-cost, high-risk, high-impact and sub-optimal solution," Hyde Merrill, a respected industry specialist hired by the slow-growth Piedmont Environmental Council of Warrenton to analyze the project, wrote in an e-mail. "I think that there are other solutions that are better and that deserve a harder look."
The 240-mile, $1.4 billion line, which Dominion plans to have in place by 2011, would cut through Frederick, Warren, Fauquier and Prince William counties before ending at a substation in southern Loudoun County. It would be built jointly with Pennsylvania-based Allegheny Power, which would be responsible for the western 200 miles.
If approved by the State Corporation Commission, it would bring 3,000 megawatts of power into Northern Virginia, nearly double what is generated by the North Anna nuclear plant and enough to power 750,000 homes or 3,000 Wal-Mart stores, Dominion officials said.
Dominion has said that the line is needed to feed rapidly expanding Northern Virginia, where demand for electricity has grown by 40 percent the past decade and is expected to grow another 8 percent in the next five years. The company is warning that without a new power line to connect power plants to the west with Northern Virginia, the region could experience rolling blackouts or the kind of massive failure that hit New York in 2003.
The critics, however, point to Dominion's data, which show that any threat of rolling blackouts would primarily be during peak hours on the days of the year with the highest power demands.
That amounts to a few hours on a handful of days, typically during the depths of summer when air conditioning units are at full tilt, said Mitchell S. Diamond, a consultant who worked for many years as a vice president in charge of an energy group at Booz Allen Hamilton, a global strategy and technology consulting firm. Diamond, who lives in Loudoun, is voluntarily advising several anti-power line groups.
"The solution that Dominion is proposing looks grossly out of proportion to the need they are trying to solve," Diamond said. "They are using scare tactics to justify this project."
The problem, he said, could be fixed by increasing capacity on existing lines, encouraging conservation and building several small "peaking plants" that kick in on high-consumption days.
Many national energy experts agree that the industry is too reliant on high-voltage transmission lines, which they say disfigure the landscape and, more importantly, provide a 20th century solution to a 21st century problem.
Simply improving the technology of existing lines, for instance, can improve their carrying capacity by between 30 percent and 50 percent, said Kurt Yeager, executive director of the Galvin Electricity Initiative, a policy research group.
"Demand-response" programs, which offer incentives to customers who voluntarily reduce electricity use when demand is high, can be very effective, Yeager said. But because power companies lose money if less electricity is used, he said, those measures are hardly encouraged.
And small, neighborhood power plants can replace or supplement the large, often polluting ones that send electricity across the country through miles and miles of transmission lines, he said.
"It's true that we need to invest in transmission capacity because there has been very little investment in it since the 1970s," Yeager said. "But that's only part of the solution. There is a tendency to do the bigger hammer approach rather than the smarter hammer approach."
Dominion officials say that by 2011, the "Band-Aid approach" will not suffice. They say that they have already increased the capacity of some lines and that conservation, while important, only goes so far.
In addition, new power plants will not solve the biggest problem, which is a shortage of power lines to carry the electricity and stabilize the overall system, said John D. Smatlak, Dominion's vice president for electric transmission.
Of particular concern is the possibility that one high-voltage line connecting West Virginia to Maryland, referred to as the Mount Storm-Doubs line, could fail. Without another line farther south to relieve the pressure, it could trigger a systemwide failure, he said.
"We need a line into Loudoun or we'll have rolling blackouts and eventually cascading blackouts," Smatlak said. "This is a transportation problem."
Dominion is not alone in calling for new transmission lines. Energy reliability groups have complained that the nation's vast network of transmission lines is not robust enough to handle Americans' insatiable appetite for electricity, prompting power companies elsewhere in the country to fast-track their power line projects.
Nationally, the demand for electricity is expected to grow by 19 percent in the next decade, with much of the growth in the mid-Atlantic region, according to North American Electric Reliability Corp., the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's designated energy reliability organization. But power plant and transmission line construction is not expected to keep pace with that growth, putting the nation's electricity supply at risk.
One of the biggest barriers to power line construction in the past 30 years has been opposition from residents and politicians, said Ashley Brown, executive director of the Harvard Electricity Policy Group. "Everyone wants the power, but no one wants the power line in their back yard," he said.
Indeed, Dominion's line has been the target of wide opposition, especially from the hundreds of residents who could be forced to hand over their land through Dominion's eminent domain power as well as others who may have to see the towers looming over their neighborhoods. The Piedmont Environmental Council has been one of the most vocal opponents.
PJM Interconnection LLC, a Pennsylvania-based organization that coordinates electric transmission in this region, has asked the U.S. Energy Department to give "national interest" status to power companies across the Mid-Atlantic. If granted, Dominion could bypass state regulatory authority and take its case to the federal government.
Many opponents think Dominion's true goal in building the line is to profit by bringing an excess of energy into the system and selling the leftovers to New York and New Jersey.
Dominion and PJM emphasize that the electricity is destined for the Baltimore-Washington-Northern Virginia region, although they acknowledge that there will be some benefits.
Utilities routinely sell excess electricity to other utilities, but state regulators typically require them to pass the savings on to customers, said a spokeswoman for the regulatory commission. Dominion officials deny that they plan to profit this way.
Opponents, however, said their allegations are bolstered by the fact that 1 1/2 years ago, this line did not appear on Dominion's 10-year plan. Dominion officials attribute the addition to an unexpected jump in energy demands last year and to not having long-term data at the time the plan was created.
Some opponents have suggested running the cables underground. Dominion officials have said that is too costly and would make repairs more difficult.