More Information on PJM Buckhannon to Weston 138 kV Line

Last week, Keryn posted information she found in a PJM slide show concerning the possible future construction of a 138 kV transmission line between Weston and Buckhannon.  The slide show was a presentation to the PJM Transmission Expansion (why not “improvement”?) Advisory Committee designed to show the impacts of the coming shut downs of many obsolete and expensive-to-run coal-fired power plants on the PJM system.

PJM, despite the fact that it is a power company controlled cartel, has the responsibility to provide reliable electrical service by maintaining the regional transmission system.  Given the inherent instability of long distance transmission of AC power, this is a constantly shifting mission involving the delicate balancing of generation capacity and electrical demand.  If a power plant closes in one area, power will have to be shifted along new routes to unsure supply and voltage stability (a serious problem on AC circuits) for consumers.

The TEAC presentation was an analysis of the changes to PJM’s system that would be required to adjust for plant closures like the ones that FirstEnergy is planning for its Albright and Willow Island power plants.  If you go to the full slide show, at this link, you can see lists of power plant closures across PJM.  The slide concerning the Buckhannon-Weston 138 kV line is slide 66.  As Keryn notes in her updated post, the B-W 138 kV line popped up in PJM’s planning as a result of the first round of plant closures that did not include FirstEnergy’s WV plants.  It is more than a little disturbing that distant plant closures in OH and PA can cause reliability problems in central WV.  This is not the sign of a “robust” (to use a favorite word of PJM’s Steve Herling) electrical system.

A number of people have expressed concern about this line, so I believe we need to take a closer look to see exactly what this line may or may not be.  I say “may” because this project is at its very preliminary stages, and may never actually happen.

What the Buckhannon-Weston 138 kV line is not:

  • A high voltage interstate transmission line.  138 kV lines are not lines, such as PATH or TrAIL, designed to transmit power hundreds of miles from state to state.  138 kV lines are integrated with local distribution systems to move power for local use from one area to another.  The 138 kV line that crosses my holler connects to a substation at Spencer, where power is then distributed to Arnoldsburg and Grantsville in Calhoun County.
  • A transmission line that preserves or promotes more coal-fired power generation.  The context in which the Buckhannon-Weston 138 kV line was presented to the PJM TEAC was the adjustment of PJM’s system to specific coal plant closures.  It is not surprising that with the closure of the Albright plants in Preston County, FirstEnergy will have to adjust how power flows across northern and central WV.  The B-W 138 kV line appears to be part of this adjustment.  This line may actually help the reduction of expensive and obsolete coal technology in WV.
  • A high voltage transmission line under WV law.  WV statute defines high voltage transmission lines as having a capacity of 200 kV or more.  The B-W 138 kV line is not considered a high voltage line under WV law and is not subject to the somewhat more stringent provisions concerning notice to land owners and other procedural requirements.

What the Buckhannon-Weston 138 kV line is:

  • A transmission line that requires a certificate of convenience and necessity under WV law.  WV statute does require that utilities acquire a certificate of convenience and necessity for lower capacity transmission lines, if those lines are not “ordinary extensions of existing systems in the usual course of business.”  FirstEnergy might try to argue that the B-W 138 kV line is an “ordinary extension,” but the PSC will make the final determination.  Dominion tried this argument with the WV PSC, and failed, concerning the Mt. Storm to Doubs 500 kV rebuild, but a smaller 138 kV line might be different.  Dominion successfully argued, in the rebuild project for the Mt. Storm to Doubs line, that they did not require a new certificate of need from the WV PSC, because this was a rebuilding of an existing line and was therefore exempt. FirstEnergy may try to claim this exemption for the B-W 138 kV line as well, although this would be an entirely new line.
  • Probably subject to eminent domain.  If a utility receives a certificate of need for a transmission project, of any size, from the WV PSC, WV law presumes that the project is for a “public use” under Chapter 54 of the WV Code.  If the PSC determines that a certificate of need is not necessary for the B-W 138 kV line, then the line may not qualify for eminent domain privileges.  This is a reason for FirstEnergy to seek a certificate of need for the project.
  • A new transmission line that may require new rights of way.  If the B-W 138 kV project does move forward, FirstEnergy may have to acquire new rights of way for the line itself and access roads for construction.  If this happens, land owners should be smart and not simply accept what FirstEnergy offers.  All of the information for land owners that is available on The Power Line would apply in this new situation.  Do not let company land agents bully you or scare you with threats of eminent domain.  Educate yourself, and get assistance from a knowledgeable and experienced attorney, from the time FirstEnergy land agents first approach you.  Do not just sign their printed forms.  Decide what you want, and have your attorney prepare an option agreement or right of way agreement that you can accept.  Keep in mind that once you sign an option agreement, and take FirstEnergy’s money, you have committed yourself to their right of way agreement.  For more information go to our Land Owner Resources page.  You should also watch and listen to the presentation on WV eminent domain procedures by a prominent WV attorney.

The only public information we currently have concerning the B-W 138 kV line is a slide in a PJM TEAC presentation which calls for the need for the line to be built by 2016.  Because this line is not a high voltage line under WV law, the requirements for notice and publication of any application for a certificate of need by FirstEnergy will be minimal.  If you want to keep track of this line, you will need to watch the PSC Web site or contact the PSC staff, because there may not be any other public notice when/if FirstEnergy files for a certificate of need.

We also don’t know at this point whether FirstEnergy is going to use the cost recovery mechanisms of the PJM cartel or FERC’s gravy train “incentive” profit rates to charge PJM rate payers for this new line.  The fact that the project appeared in the TEAC report indicates that PJM would approve PJM-wide rate recovery for this project as a promoter of “reliability.”  Such a small project would probably fail to get FERC gravy train treatment, but you can never tell.  Allegheny tried all kinds of scams to tack projects onto the TrAIL gravy train.  Remember the Kammer scam?  It is likely that this small project falls well below FERC’s threshold for special transmission “incentives.”

The impact of 138 kV lines is nothing like the impact of 500 kV or 765 kV lines such as TrAIL or PATH.  Current flows are lower, so ionizing and non-ionizing radiation levels are lower.  Tower structures are lower and are often wood instead of steel lattice construction.  Rights of way are narrower, down to 100′ as opposed to 200′ to 250′ for the larger lines.

FirstEnergy bought Allegheny Energy last year, and along with the company, they bought Allegheny’s past bad faith dealings with property owners and customers concerning transmission line construction.  FirstEnergy will have to face the fact that every transmission project will have to prove itself to West Virginians.  The ultimate outcome of a B-W 138 kV line may very well be a stronger grid for West Virginia power users and fewer coal-fired power plants.  Nonetheless, FirstEnergy will have to prove that it respects private property and the rights of West Virginians to overcome the atmosphere of distrust that Allegheny created with its TrAIL and PATH projects.

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