Key component of Cuomo’s energy highway stalls

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Transmission lines. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
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ALBANY—It's not exactly clear where Andrew Cuomo's energy highway plan is headed.

Once heralded by the governor as a transformative way to bring down energy costs for consumers while increasing jobs at upstate power producers, the plan announced more than three years ago has produced little progress on a core initiative: a nearly $1 billion project to run AC transmission lines around Utica or the Catskills and down the Hudson Valley to meet downstate's growing power needs.

Developers recently resubmitted reworked plans for power lines, but after months of community objections and local town boards passing resolutions against the transmission lines, the state Public Service Commission will hold a June conference on whether they're needed. Some observers see that as a sign that the administration is delaying any substantive decisions on it and could be planning to shelve the initiative indefinitely.

"A modern, efficient power delivery system is essential to ensuring that we have the reliable, clean and affordable energy needed to meet the demands of a 21st century economy," Cuomo said of the plan shortly after it was announced. "Modernizing and strengthening our state's power transmission system is a centerpiece of the Energy Highway Blueprint."

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While the transmission plan is still officially underway, the window in which it makes sense to undertake the upgrades seems to be closing, due to a combination of energy capacity improvements, strong local opposition and competing goals in the state's future energy plan. 

State Public Service Commission chairwoman Audrey Zibelman, who inhereted the project when she took the helm as the state's chief utility regulator, recently issued a statement noting that regulators will “re-examine” the need for the transmission lines.

“After carefully considering comments from stakeholders and members of the public, and in light of other proceedings related to improving energy efficiency and modernizing the grid, we will carefully re-examine the need for transmission upgrades to address existing transmission congestion problems,” Zibelman said. “This thorough review will help provide greater clarity to the process and to the communities in the impacted areas.”

Assemblywoman Didi Barrett of Dutchess County, a Democrat who opposes the planned transmission lines, that sounds like it could be a victory, though it's too early to celebrate just yet. She said the June conference will include a significant voice of opposition to the project, one that state regulators have clearing already heard.

“They recognize there is a real question about the need, they recognize this is not twenty-first century technology, that they're going to destroy some thing in the Hudson Valley, our viewsheds, our economy, our tourism,” she said.

For years, the state's grid operator and power producers have said bottlenecks on transmission lines in the lower Hudson Valley have reduced the availability of power from upstate producers. It has increased utility bills in New York City and the lower Hudson Valley. The energy highway is supposed to increase capacity, which will bring down energy prices. The state's website boasts that the energy highway is a “bold proposal” that will transform the electrical grid.

However, the state is currently reworking the energy markets and reconfiguring the electrical grid.

Under the Reforming Energy Vision plan, power will come from smaller sources, including solar and wind, not large power plants that burn fossil fuels. The transmission line plan is part of the old system that the state wants to replace, Barrett said.

The department is “actively engaged in the review and analysis” of newly submitted transmission line proposals, P.S.C. spokesman James Denn said last week. He said the P.S.C. will soon prepare a report that determines the need for those proposals, and will look at benefits and costs.

In April 2013, the state published an update on the plan, noting that New York was “ahead of the aggressive schedule” it established for itself. But the plan to use transmission lines to connect Western New York power producers to the Albany region, and upstate power producers to the Lower Hudson Valley, has failed to materialize in any significant way.

What's more, new power is already flowing to the region, and more could be on the way. After federal regulators created a new capacity zone in the Lower Hudson Valley, two new power plants in the Hudson Valley, Danskammer and Bowline, will bring back about 1,000 megawatts of power. And a proposed $2 billion power line that would bring Canadian hydropower through an underwater cable in the Hudson River will bring in an additional 1,000 megawatts of power and has received some of its final federal approvals.

The transmissions lines were also seen by some as a way to circumvent the Indian Point nuclear power plant, which Cuomo has said he wants to close. But the administration has made few moves to close the plant and tough new Environmental Protection Agency regulations on power plant emissions could make it harder for the state's energy grid to lose the emissions-free power produced by Indian Point.

Much of the delay stems from a mounting uproar over the lines along the route they are expected to follow. The most powerful opponents of the energy highway are protest groups and local elected officials from communities all along some of the earlier proposed routes. They have raised objections to the potential transmission lines all along the route, which could cut across pieces of private property or significantly increase the size of the larger metal poles used for high-voltage wires. Signs sprouted in hundreds of yards that read “No Monster Power Lines” and elected officials have called on the governor to reconsider the lines, which would be taller and wider than the current route, or create a new route entirely in some places. 

The state is now studying whether the projects are even needed, a year after Cuomo announced a more streamlined plan for the approval of transmission lines.

Some executives in the energy industry see that as yet another punt by the Cuomo administration, which has put off a number of difficult energy decisions for years.

Upstate power generators are already vulnerable because of low energy prices, said Darren Suarez, director of governmental affairs at the state Business Council. Not building the transmission lines will make it harder for them to sell power in to the system and it will raise prices for consumers because there will be less competition, he said. It also makes power producers vulnerable to closure.

“Any delay in that process is potentially exposing upstate communities to those places not being in business,” he said.

Most of the state's energy initiatives run into protests, because they're either in somebody's backyard or because they cause pollution, said Jerry Kremer, a former assemblyman and chair of the New York Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance, a coalition of business groups, energy companies and consultants. The significant delays on the key energy highway decision make construction transmission lines less likely, he said.

“Each one of these decisions make it harder for the energy highway to have any short or long term victories,” he said.