Pennsylvania community’s struggle over power lines shows tensions with a clean energy future
Barron Shaw’s family has been selling fruit from their orchard that has spanned the Pennsylvania-Maryland border for over a century.
Its links with the land go back even further.
âMy family ancestors built this house on the hill here in 1862 during the Civil War,â he said as he recently walked through his orchard. âSo we have pretty deep roots in the earth here. “
He was therefore alarmed when he learned in 2017 that a company called Transource wanted to build a new power line through his property. The planned route would have passed through Shaw’s peach stands.
But his big concern was that his orchards increasingly depend on customers who come to pick their own fruit.
âThey don’t just come here because we have great food – which we do – but they come here because it’s beautiful,â Shaw said. “And you know what, no matter how you dress the power line, it’s never going to be pretty.”
A compromise refused
Shaw joined a group of landowners to fight the project. They settled with Transource in 2019, agreeing to drop any opposition if the company used the existing infrastructure nearby to thread new lines. The company kept a plan to build new lines about 60 miles away in Franklin County.
Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania utility regulator refuse the whole project, claiming that Transource could not justify a need and that the project brought little or no benefit to the Pennsylvanians.
But Shaw is still worried.
âYou can see that this problem is going to be played out with a shovel at the national level,â he said.
Climate targets mean more transmission lines
President Joe Biden wants the country to have carbon dioxide-free electricity by 2035.
To achieve this, the country would need to more than double the electricity infrastructure it currently has over the next decade, according to a Princeton University study.
Congress is expected to vote soon on a bill that could help with this construction.
What happened with the Transource project in southern York and Franklin counties is a sign of the tensions the country will face as some push for a transition to a clean energy future.
Transource would have built less than 50 miles new lines to transport cheaper electricity from energy-rich Pennsylvania to high-demand areas around Washington DC
Transource is appealing the denial of the project and said the benefits of greater transmission are not limited to geographic boundaries.
âCustomer-focused improvement projects in one area of ââthe grid can benefit customers in another part of the regional power grid,â said Transource director Todd Burns. “For example, recent improvements in Indiana and Westmoreland counties, over 160 km away, have improved the operation of the network in York County.”
For the United States to create a carbon-free power grid, it would take much bigger projects. The best places to produce renewables in the United States are usually far from where most people live, so electricity will have to travel to reach people one way or another.
The third cousin
Destenie Nock, who teaches engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, understands why people don’t want transmission lines running through their backyards.
It’s not the common wooden telephone poles that run along many roads and connect to homes. Transmission lines consist of high voltage wires threaded between towers over 100 feet high. Overhead lines make a buzzing or hissing noise and can be ugly.
âThey are not the sexy part of the energy transition,â she said. “The wind and the sun are the sexy part, and then the transmission is kind of like that third cousin you brought to the party becauseâ¦ you don’t want to feel bad about leaving them out.” “
But, to follow Nock’s cousin analogy, more cousins ââmeans more hands to carry all the party supplies inside. More transmission will help carry more electricity.
âWhat a lot of people forget is that these transmission lines are vital to the operation of the entire network,â Nock said.
Transmission lines are like a highway for electricity, according to Ben Kroposki, who heads the Power Systems Engineering Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.
He compares I-95 on the east coast to I-81, which runs through central Pennsylvania. I-95 is always crowded as many more people are driving on it.
To meet the country’s goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions that accelerate climate change, people will need more carbon-free electricity to do things like power and heat their homes and charge their electric cars. It will therefore be crucial to add more lanes to these electric highways and build new ones.
And if they are built, they will have to pass through certain communities.
No consideration for the climate
In addition to people battling nearby power lines, Kroposki said there are many political barriers, from states to counties to utilities.
Entities like the Pennsylvania Utilities Commission or county governments do not have to consider the national situation or climate goals when making their decisions. It can be boiled down to, do the people I serve need it?
Right now, the answer might be no.
âOur systems are working and the lights are on in your house, so it must be working,â Kroposki said.
But, he added, building a new line can take 10 years from proposal to construction. So we have to plan now what we want in the future.
PJM, the regional power grid operator that serves 13 states including Pennsylvania, projects electricity demand growth of 0.2% per year, which it says would not trigger a need to expand electricity. transport.
But in a statement, PJM said the development of new renewable resources may require the new transmission. PJM said he was working to make sure he can plan well for such a system.
There are three big problems with the electrical industry, which Rob Gramlich calls the âthree Ps:â planning, authorizing and paying.
Gramlich is the president of Grid Strategies, which strives to bring more renewable energy to the electricity grid.
Federal infrastructure bill waiting for a vote in the House is intended to iron out these problems. It would give $ 65 billion for electrical infrastructure, although only $ 2.5 billion would go directly to funding the construction of new power lines.
âMaybe these invoices do 10% of the job,â Gramlich said. âI wish it was more. It’s a very useful 10% and maybe that gets us started and maybe we get some momentum out of it. “
Gramlich said that the “Build Back Better” bill in the US House, however, “provides a lot of financial support for large-scale transmission and complements the policy provisions of the bipartisan Senate bill.” He said it includes a tax credit and $ 8 billion in loans and grants “for transmission lines of regional importance.”
The infrastructure bill and other measures pending in Congress could also give federal regulators more power over the location of power lines, perhaps by overturning states.
Gramlich said he believed the power would be rarely used, but could encourage cooperation.
âIf they can just say no, my state doesn’t like it or benefit from it, even though half the country does, right now the process ends there,â Gramlich said. “But if there is some kind of federal review process, then the process hopefully continues and people find an acceptable solution.”
It may be something like the compromise Barron Shaw’s group reached with Transource.
Shaw suspiciously follows the bills in Congress.
âHonestly, I don’t trust the federal bureaucracy to look after the good of the local state, let alone the county or the local farm,â he said.
Shaw said what seemed to work best for him was that there were many agencies and individuals who could ask tough questions and find a solution that worked for most of them.
This story is produced in partnership with State Impact Pennsylvania, a collaboration between The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the Commonwealth’s energy economy.