The road to hell may, indeed, be paved with good intentions, but sometimes relentless reason and economic reality can save us from the abyss.
Such is the case with last week’s announcement that the board of managers of PJM Interconnection — the Oz-like overseer of wholesale electric needs for the region based in Valley Forge, Pa. — had formally abandoned plans for a $2.1 billion, 275-mile transmission line that would meander through three states, ending at a substation in Kemptown between Urbana and Mount Airy.
After five years of opposition and $130 million being spent on the project that electric customers, including those with Potomac Edison, will still have to cover, it was decided that the controversial Potomac Appalachian Transmission Highline, or PATH, was not needed to ensure the reliability of the area’s power supply in the years to come.
Proving that sometimes the little guy can actually win, groups like the Sierra Club, the Sugarloaf Conservancy, C.A.K.E.S., or Citizens Against the Kemptown Electric Substation, and other groups, including even the Frederick Board of Realtors, rose up to fight the proposal, arguing it was an unneeded and unsafe intrusion into the environment and private property. Meanwhile, the utilities warned of ominous brownouts and blackouts if the project wasn’t built.
Sparked initially in 2005 by Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ concerns that the growing region would need more power by 2014, PJM approved the PATH idea two years later. In 2009, Allegheny Energy and American Electric Power filed applications to undertake the massive project in Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Two years later, FirstEnergy Corp., whose Maryland division is Potomac Edison, acquired Allegheny Energy. Soon, however, both FirstEnergy and America Electric withdrew their applications. And, earlier this month, the PJM staff recommended to its board that the project be canceled, citing the slow economic recovery that had diminished power needs for the region until at least 2027. The board wisely, if somewhat belatedly, took their advice, officially putting the project out of its misery on Aug. 27.
While cynics would say that it was Wall Street’s cold-eyed bottom line that really brought PATH to a dead end, there is no doubt that all those pestering private citizens had an impact on the ultimate outcome.
As Dick Ishler, past president of C.A.K.E.S., accurately put it in an exuberant news release: “This proves that citizens can successfully fight an egregious wrong by banding together and fighting with facts, not raw emotion.”
The Sugarloaf Conservancy — which its founders say was born in 2008 not to oppose PATH but merely to seek alternatives to it — quickly came to the opinion that the project was being kept alive by corporate greed, not legitimate concerns about the lights going out.
Bolstered by a 14.3 percent rate guarantee in 2008 from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, PJM had no incentive to admit defeat, instead deciding in 2011 to put the project on hold for another year in the apparent hope that the need could still be eventually justified if the economy rebounded. The problem is the meter was still running for ratepayers.
Under FERC’s guarantee for recovery of any stranded investment if the project was abandoned, the $130 million in expenses so far will be paid by ratepayers in principal and interest over the next 40 to 50 years, according to Doug Kaplan, president of the conservancy.
Although it could be argued that without such arrangements, huge private-sector investment in critical utility infrastructure like this would never happen, it seems ratepayers always end up holding the bag, bearing the cost of the risk rather than investors. Stockholders win, ratepayers lose. It’s the Catch 22 of American capitalism.
The good news is that because the project has been stopped, ratepayers won’t be bled further — at least this time. But what about next time?
The conservancy has a good idea before that happens. It urges that any future applicants wanting to construct a transmission line be required to first prove to the Maryland Public Service Commission that there is a need for it and whether other alternative methods, such as rebuilding outdated lines or constructing smaller local power plants, could meet the projected power requirements instead. That sounds like another dose of clear-eyed reason.