State Regulators Greenlight Power Line in Northern Va.

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 8, 2008

State regulators approved Dominion Virginia Power's proposal yesterday to build a 65-mile transmission line through rural Northern Virginia, saying that the project is critical to delivering electricity to the power-hungry region and avoiding widespread blackouts.

The three-judge Virginia State Corporation Commission, whose members are selected by the General Assembly to oversee utilities and other public industries, agreed unanimously to Dominion's plan. The decision gives the power company permission to string the 500-kilovolt line along 15-story towers through farms, forests and suburban areas in six counties, including Fauquier, Loudoun and Prince William.

Yesterday, critics of the project, citing environmental concerns, said they were not done fighting and would appeal the ruling to the Virginia Supreme Court.

But commission members said that although they were "sympathetic to the opponents' position that planning for transmission, generation and conservation should be done in an integrated and holistic process," Dominion had demonstrated that there was a dire need and that state law required them to approve it.

Officials at Dominion, which has 2.3 million customers and is the state's largest energy provider, said construction must begin as soon as possible to eliminate the threat of rolling blackouts beginning in 2011. Demand for electricity has risen by more than 8 percent in the past decade as the region has developed, officials have said, creating instability in the electrical grid.

But the company has one more hurdle before it can start building. The line is part of a larger, 250-mile project that Dominion is proposing jointly with Pennsylvania-based Allegheny Energy. That $1.3 billion line would begin in Pennsylvania, cross part of West Virginia and enter Virginia in Frederick County.

West Virginia officials have agreed to their portion, but Pennsylvania has not made a decision on the mile within its borders. A decision is expected any day, and a denial could derail the Virginia section. Opposition to the line has been fierce in Pennsylvania, but Allegheny is negotiating with officials and the four landowners to gain support.

Two other large power lines have been proposed for the Washington area.

One would start in West Virginia and end close to the Montgomery County border. The other would begin in Prince William, extend through Southern Maryland and then cross the Chesapeake Bay to the Eastern Shore.

The power companies say the lines are necessary to keep up with the mid-Atlantic's voracious demand for electricity.

Opposition to the 65 miles in Virginia has been consistent among environmentalists, landowners and others who have said the towers would scar a landscape fiercely protected over the years because of its natural beauty and historical significance.

Early on, Dominion bowed to pressure by changing its proposed route to bypass Civil War battlefields and environmentally sensitive areas to generally follow existing rights of way. But opposition has not diminished, especially among environmental groups, which say the new line will encourage the construction of polluting coal plants that contribute to global warming. They have advocated such alternatives as conservation and upgrades to existing lines.

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