INDEPENDENCE — Julie Sexstone rolled up the shades and pointed at the view outside her dining room window. Rolling hills framed a broad meadow and a blue-green pond.
“This is our view,” Sexstone said, “and our heartbreak.”
By 2011, a huge power line may cut through Sexstone’s backyard.
Long wires would hang over their pond. Giant steel towers would stand on the ridges.
Allegheny Energy is pushing the project, a 500-kilovolt-transmission line to carry electricity from southwestern Pennsylvania, through West Virginia, and into northern Virginia.
Power company officials say the line is needed. It will help provide cheap and reliable electricity to big eastern cities and their growing suburbs, company officials say.
But from Morgantown to Moorefield, the proposal has hundreds of West Virginians such as Julie Sexstone and her husband, Alan, up in arms.
“My Lord, I hope we can do something to stop it,” said Doyle West, who lives near the Sexstones in the Laurel Run area south of Morgantown, a hotbed of opposition to the project.
Residents worry the power line will ruin their property values and mar scenic views. They’re concerned about damage to water quality from clear-cutting for the construction, and about the potential health effects of the power line’s electromagnetic field.
Some residents oppose the idea of adding to the nation’s addiction to cheap, but dirty, coal-fired power plants.
Above all, residents object to having their land taken from them by the power company, which would have the right of eminent domain if the transmission line were approved.
Allegheny Energy spokesman Allen Staggers said the opposition did not surprise company officials.
“We know that projects like this are going to be controversial, especially power lines,” Staggers said last week. “We understood there would be public opposition from the very beginning.”
But the power line is shaping up to be the most contentious case to hit the West Virginia Public Service Commission in years, observers say.
Two citizens groups, a large business coalition and a labor union have intervened on various sides. Five families who own properties along the line’s proposed path have asked to intervene to oppose the project. Dozens more have sent formal protest letters to the commission. So has the Monongalia County Farm Bureau.
County commissions in at least three of the six affected counties — Hampshire, Monongalia and Preston — have also voiced their opposition.
Last week, the PSC set tentative dates for its formal evidentiary hearing: Nov. 28 through Dec. 7. Commissioners have also promised to schedule several public comment hearings in the affected areas.
But the PSC’s decision might not really matter.
Under a 2005 federal law, West Virginia — along with Pennsylvania and Virginia — may lose its ability to decide if the power line should be built. If the states don’t act soon enough, and perhaps if any of the states reject the proposal, federal officials could take over jurisdiction.
On top of their other concerns, that potential loss of local control is the final straw for residents such as the Sexstones.
“I don’t know another way to say it,” said Alan Sexstone, a WVU professor and researcher. “It’s just un-American.”
‘She looked at me and said, “We’ll take it”’
Just before last Thanksgiving, the Sexstones saw a small ad in the local newspaper announcing an “open house” about the transmission line.
The Sexstones went to the nearby Clinton fire hall to see what was going on.
Maps were spread out on tables and posted on walls. Power company officials were on hand to answer questions.
The Sexstones were shocked at what they learned: Allegheny proposed to take the transmission line up their driveway and across the back of their property. The power company officials said they wanted a 200-foot wide right of way easement to build and maintain the line.
“I talked to one of them, and said, ‘What if I don’t want to sell?’ and she looked at me and said, ‘We’ll take it,’” Alan Sexstone recalled.
At that point, the project had already cleared one of its key hurdles. In June 2006, it was approved by PJM Interconnection, a private organization that manages the regional power grid. PJM is kind of like an air traffic controller for power plants and transmission lines.
As designed, the $1.3 billion power line would stretch for 240 miles. Allegheny and Dominion Energy will construct it, with costs being split about 65/35.
The developers named the project TrAIL, for Trans-Allegheny Interstate Line.
In West Virginia, the line would run for about 114 miles. It would enter the state near Bowlby, north of Morgantown, and run about 67 miles to the south and east through Monongalia, Preston and Tucker counties to a substation near Mount Storm in Grant County. Then, it would extend east for 47 miles through Grant and Hardy counties, and into Hampshire County, before entering Virginia near Capon Springs.
Allegheny’s preferred route would involve 10 major river crossings and 116 smaller stream crossings.
Nearly 2,000 acres of forest would be cleared for the right of way, according to studies Allegheny submitted to the PSC.
No residences would be removed, and Allegheny touts the fact that most of its preferred route “is in undeveloped forest land.”
“The route avoids mining operations west of the Mt. Storm power plant and crosses over the proposed Corridor H expressway alignment without interference,” Allegheny’s route report stated.
Allegheny’s proposed route also crosses 1.7 miles of the newly designated Little Indian Creek wildlife management area, crosses once over six designated hiking trails, crosses once over West Virginia Scenic Highway 50 and crosses both the South Branch and Nathaniel Mountain wildlife management areas.
“The most suitable route was defined as the route minimizing the effects of the transmission line on all factors of the natural and cultural environment, while avoiding unreasonable and circuitous routes, extreme costs, and non-standard design requirements,” the route report said.
Those conclusions aren’t much comfort to folks such as Ralph Wojtowicz. Wojtowicz and his wife spent their life savings to build a new home in River Ridge, a development north of Wardensville. The house, on a 20-acre lot, was their dream home.
In December, with his wife five months pregnant, Wojtowicz learned about the power line. He discovered it would cross the development within a few lots of his.
Wojtowicz joined the opposition, and began writing letters to local officials and state political leaders.
“We cannot raise our children under a power line,” he wrote in one letter to Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. “Please take action to protect my family.”
Byrd promised to relay Wojtowicz’s concerns to Allegheny Power and to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
FERC sent back a letter to assure Byrd that the commission’s goal is always “to work closely with property owners, affected communities, and cooperating agencies to address all concerns — including safety and environmental impacts.”
A Buddhist group has also joined the opposition, because the final route could cross the Bhavana Society Monastery and Retreat Center in Hampshire County.
In a letter, Bhante Yogavacara Rahula, vice abbott of the monastery, explained, “Hundreds of people come here every year from all parts of the country as well as from abroad to spend time in prayer and meditation in the peaceful setting of the forest.”
On its Web site, the Bhavana Society added, “Apart from the potential health concerns due to close proximity to electromagnetic radiation and the herbicides used to maintain the line, the power line would seriously infringe on the sanctity and integrity of our contemplative way of life.”
The blackout of 2003
At about 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 14, 2003, a FirstEnergy power plant outside Cleveland — a plant with a history of maintenance problems — shut down.
This increased demand on other plants, and other power transmission lines in the region. Within a half-hour, a power line 25 miles south in Walton Hills, Ohio, was heating up and stretching from the strain. The line dipped into a tree and failed.
Over the next hours, two more transmission lines in the area did the same thing.
A domino effect followed. Transmission lines failed, power plants went offline automatically to avoid being damaged. Blackouts followed, spreading quickly and widely.
Eventually, 61,800 megawatts of electric load went offline, the equivalent of more than 20 John Amos Power Plants. More than 50 million people in eight U.S. states and Ontario were without power. Service was not restored for four days in some parts of the United States, according to a joint U.S.-Canadian report on the blackout.
Outage-related financial costs — everything from lost wages for workers whose offices or factories closed to food that spoiled in powerless refrigerators — was estimated at between $4 billion and $10 billion, according to a report from the Electric Consumer Research Council.
The Northeast Blackout of 2003 has become the symbol of what’s wrong with America’s electrical infrastructure. And now, it’s a major driver in the push for the new Allegheny Energy power line.
Allegheny describes a similar potential blackout scenario in its petition for the new line, filed in late March with the West Virginia Public Service Commission.
Lawrence Hozempa, a senior Allegheny engineer, warned that an overload of either of two Allegheny 500-kilovolt lines “could have far-reaching effects — effects similar to those experienced in the August 2003 blackout.”
One line runs from Mount Storm east to the Doubs Station, near Frederick, Md. The other carries power from Greenland Gap east to the Meadowbrook Substation, near Winchester, Va. Both are important arteries for carrying power west to east.
Here’s what Hozempa said could happen: If the Greenland Gap-Meadowbrook line went out, the Mount Storm-Doubs line would exceed its emergency rating and overload. This would cause it to fail as well, and automatically disconnect it from the rest of the grid.
With both of those lines out, “two critical west-to-east pathways” for power would be gone.
“Once these two lines are disconnected, it is very likely that other west-to-east pathways will overload and disconnect, causing the underlying transmission system which serves local load on the east side of the Allegheny Mountains, including the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, to begin to collapse due to inadequate [extra-high voltage] support,” Hozempa testified.
“Once the transmission system begins to separate or disconnect at the mountains, the pocket of generation on the west side of the Allegheny Mountains, particularly in northwestern West Virginia, is trapped,” he said. “Under this condition, the generating units can become unstable and trip off-line, causing more lines to overload and disconnect, especially the lines nearer the tripped generating units.
“This type of event can spread rapidly, causing widespread outages throughout the Eastern Interconnection, including other areas of West Virginia,” he said.
Part of the problem is the grid itself. It’s a complicated thing, and most people don’t understand how it works.
Electricity is generated at power plants, typically by burning coal or natural gas, or with hydro or nuclear power.
Transmission substations boost the electricity up to extremely high voltages, which are more efficient for long-range transmission. The electricity comes off wires, and into substations. Substations convert it to lower voltages for distribution to businesses and homes.
Nationwide, there are about 160,000 miles of power transmission lines — enough to wrap around the globe six times at the equator.
But the grid was never designed as a true national electricity transmission system. It’s more of a patchwork of various transmission lines, cobbled together over time.
For years, true interstate transmission of power wasn’t needed. Every town or region supplied its own power. In West Virginia, coal towns had their own generating stations. Elsewhere, towns operated their own hydroelectric dams.
Over time, these facilities were knitted together as power companies became larger. Still, there was never a grand plan to make sure everyone had consistently reliable electricity supplies with backup transmission for emergencies.
Today, though, more and more of the eastern part of the country’s power is generated in one place, or one region — namely, in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, through a collection of coal-fired power plants in the Ohio Valley.
At the same time, most of the need is someplace else — mostly in the growing cities and suburbs sprawling up and down the East Coast, especially in the corridor from Washington, D.C., to New York City.
Things really changed in 1992, when Congress deregulated wholesale electric sales.
Power companies increased their efforts to sell large amounts of power to faraway places.
“The regulatory regime has shifted the operations of the electric utility industry, creating larger and more frequent bulk power transmission across a transmission system designed largely for local intrastate service,’ concluded a February report from the Congressional Research Service. “However, investment and infrastructure have not kept up with increases in bulk power transfers and electricity demand.”
Between 1978 and 1998, electricity demand had been growing at an average rate of 2.8 percent a year. Transmission capacity, expressed in relation to electricity demand, increased by 3.5 percent per year between 1978 and 1982, but then declined by 1.2 percent between 1982 and 1998.
“This long period of insufficient transmission investment has led to transmission lines that are congested in several regions of the United States,” the CRS report concluded.
‘It’s pretty ironic’
The Sexstones had lived along Morgantown-Grafton road since about 1983. But by the mid-1990s, the university city’s southward expansion had them yearning to move farther out in the country.
In 1994, they bought 132 acres of “basically raw land” in the Laurel Run watershed, out a winding paved country road, and then a gravel side road from U.S. 119.
Over the next three years, they designed and built a large house with high ceilings and, especially, broad windows “so you are really part of the land,” Julie Sexstone said.
The Sexstones also paid the power company to bury the electrical lines to their new home.
“We didn’t want power lines on our viewshed,” Julie said.
Now, they may have no choice but to live with huge towers and electrical lines strung across their property.
“It’s pretty ironic, to say the least,” she said.
In its route study, Allegheny estimates about half of the 125 residences within 500 feet of the route centerline have “moderate to high” visual screenings, such as trees or hills.
“Viewers at these residences should not be able to clearly see an extensive amount of the transmission line from these residences,” the report concludes.
But, the study added, the power line towers are 142 feet tall. Trees along the route average 60 to 110 feet high.
“The transmission line structures will be of a height to project above the forest canopy,” the study said. “Depending on topographic conditions, which may diminish or enhance the view, viewers at farther distances should likely see the tops of the structures above the trees.”
Thirty years ago, Billy Jack Gregg was a young lawyer handling civil rights cases for the West Virginia Attorney General. Then, the power company proposed a 765-kilovolt-transmission line across his family’s Putnam County farm.
Gregg and his neighbors fought the project, using a four-year-old law requiring PSC approval for large transmission lines. They lost, and the power line was built. But Gregg and his neighbors won some concessions, including limited clear-cutting and no aerial herbicide spraying.
Not long after that, the Legislature created a new “consumer advocate” within the PSC. Gregg got the job, and he’s been there ever since, fighting for low rates and reliable service from state water, power and gas companies.
Over the past few months, Gregg has appeared at several community meetings in the area affected by the Allegheny proposal. Gregg said he understands the residents’ concerns, and offers them hope — and constructive suggestions — on how they can affect the outcome of the PSC decision.
“What has never been put in the equation before is you all,” Gregg told residents at a July meeting in Tunnelton. “This just doesn’t exist on some timetable or engineer’s drawing. There are real people who experience real costs.”
But when residents pepper him with questions, Gregg also breaks the news that, yes, the power companies can really take private land for transmission lines.
The company would have the power to condemn the land through eminent domain. They’ll offer a price, but if sellers aren’t willing, they’ll end up in court, where a judge or a jury will decide the fair value.
So far, it’s hard for landowners along the route to know how much they would be affected. The eventual 200-foot corridor could be anywhere within a 2,200-foot-wide route shown on company maps.
Once the final route is laid out, Allegheny will clear its right of way to a “nominal width” of 150 feet or “as deemed necessary for the safe and reliable operation of the line,” a route report explained.
Residents can’t stop this process, even if they band together and refuse to sell, hoping to tie Allegheny up in court for years, Gregg said.
“They can go ahead and build if they post a bond, even if you go to court,” Gregg said.
And because of federal legislation passed in 2005, this whole process might be made a lot easier.
If local politicians and regulators side with residents who oppose a power line, power companies can get federal authorities to overrule them.
It’s all part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, legislation that the GOP-controlled Congress drew up mostly behind closed doors.
The concept, called “federal backstopping,” had its roots, at least in part, with Vice President Cheney’s energy taskforce.
In its May 2001 report, the taskforce complained, “siting of transmission facilities is a responsibility of state governments, not the federal government, even though the transmission system is not only interstate but also international, extending into Canada and Mexico.
“This stands in stark contrast to the siting of other interstate facilities, such as natural gas pipelines, oil pipelines, railroads and interstate highways,” the report said.
The report concluded that state decisions on power lines “often do not recognize the importance of proposed transmission facilities to the interstate grid.”
The taskforce also said power line projects languish because federal agencies limit access for them to cross government land. The report cited American Electric Power’s problems receiving approval for a new 765-kilovolt line to cross the New River Gorge National River.
Four years later, Congress responded.
Under the 2005 energy bill, the U.S. Department of Energy was charged with studying transmission and determining what areas are “experiencing electric energy transmission capacity constrains or congestion that adversely affects consumers.”
Within these corridors, power companies can seek approval for new power lines from FERC if a state has “withheld approval of the project for more than a year.”
If FERC takes jurisdiction, the move also makes the federal DOE the lead agency for all environmental review of the project. Environmental reviews under various laws are consolidated, and a single study document would be prepared.
If any agency denies a needed permit, developers can appeal directly to the president.
In addition, any rights of way needed would be obtained by going to federal court, not state or local courts.
When he signed the bill on Aug. 5, 2005, President Bush said the legislation “removes outdated obstacles to investment in electricity transmission lines in generating facilities.”
In May, the DOE proposed two national energy corridors where the new transmission siting process would apply. One of them, the Mid-Atlantic Corridor, includes the northern two-thirds of West Virginia.
Allegheny Power said the designation was one of the ways the federal government is “promoting and encouraging investment to expand and improve the electric transmission system.”
American Electric Power believes the new law will also help it build a 550-mile power line from the John Amos Power Plant near St. Albans to New Jersey.
‘I support both of these projects’
At first, Gov. Joe Manchin offered unqualified support for the Allegheny power line, and for AEP’s proposal.
Both projects “are complementary, and together would resolve the vast majority of congestion problems identified in an area as one of the most critical in the United States,” Manchin wrote in an October 2006 letter to Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman.
Manchin said he and his staff had “reviewed both of these projects and spoken at length with AEP and [Allegheny] officials regarding the benefits of the lines — benefits to the citizens of West Virginia, as well as millions of citizens of other states.”
Then, the possible effects of federal backstopping emerged.
In May, FERC ruled that it could take over power line siting not only when states don’t make a decision, but also when states reject power company applications.
Manchin wrote to FERC a month later. He complained that the decision “flies in the face of the plain language of the Act and threatens the critical balance between state sovereignty and national interests.” Any effort to overrule a decision by the West Virginia PSC on a power line “would be untenable from my perspective,” the governor wrote.
FERC also surprised observers with a ruling about how Allegheny could pay for the power line.
Most observers, including Allegheny, thought FERC would limit rate hikes to fund the project to customers to whom the power line carries electricity. Instead, in April, the agency ruled that such rate increases should be applied to all customers in the region, based on each customer’s share of the electrical load.
The result? Allegheny’s West Virginia customers would get hit with a rate hike of about $9.6 million a year, according to new estimates filed with the PSC on Aug. 10. That amounts to about 90 cents per month for an average customer, Allegheny experts estimated.
The FERC ruling would also expand the rate hikes to customers of other West Virginia utilities. The idea is that everyone benefits from a more reliable energy grid, so everyone should help pay for it.
In West Virginia, for example, AEP customers might end up paying an additional 33 cents a month to fund Allegheny’s power line, Gregg said. And every time a new power line is proposed, similar rate hikes will apply to all West Virginia residents, Gregg said.
In his letter to FERC, Manchin said the agency’s rate scheme would “unduly shift a disproportionate share of the cost ... away from those customers receiving the electricity in the greater-Washington, D.C., area to ratepayers in West Virginia where those lines will be predominantly sited.
“West Virginians have always been proud to take the lead in powering this country, but to expect them to do the heavy-lifting of generating and delivering so much of America’s power and then pay for others’ use of the power is simply unfair,” the governor wrote.
‘I wouldn’t want to swim here’
Down the road from the Sexstones, Sam Dyke folded a topographic map out on the table on his deck. He pointed out the eight coal-fired power plants located within 30 miles of his home. He traced the proposed power line’s route through his community.
Dyke and his wife, Susan Capelle, bought an old farm in 1996, and have been slowly building a home there. Dyke is kind of a park ranger for the community, tending to local hiking tails and spreading the word about news on the power line project to his neighbors.
Despite the distance between neighbors that is typical in country communities, Dyke says the Laurel Run folks have always been close-knit. Residents fended off a strip mine proposal about a decade ago, and they work together to keep area hills and creeks clean.
Two years ago, Dyke and his wife bought about 30 acres of land adjacent to their farm property. They wanted to protect Kerns Falls, a picturesque waterfall used as a local swimming hole.
Dyke knows the hike back to the falls well. On a recent trip, he cleared a few stray branches from the trail. He pointed out where an old water-powered sawmill used to sit.
“As best we can tell, the power line would come about 200 feet over there,” Dyke said, pointing upstream from the falls. “I wouldn’t want to swim here with a 500-kilovolt power line over my head.
“You almost know there’s going to be a tower on every hill,” he said. “I don’t know why they don’t build more power lines where the power is needed.”
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.