More Power Lines In Our Future?

by Peter Paden Published March 7, 2014 in the Register-Star

More Power Lines In Our Future?

Power line proposals are in the headlines in Columbia County these days. A couple of years ago NYSEG proposed to construct a new power line across more than 11 miles of farms, wood lots, wetlands and scenic public spaces in Ghent. More recently, serious discussion is underway of proposals arising out of Governor Cuomo’s so-called “Energy Highway” initiative that could significantly expand major power line corridors already bisecting large portions of our county, leading to the condemnation of hundreds of acres of privately-owned land, including productive farmland, healthy forests and other sensitive ecosystems, and creating an enormous visual blight across a broad and lengthy swath of our landscape. Both proposals have caused a lot of consternation and controversy in and beyond the immediately affected communities. And in both cases, sophisticated, grassroots opposition has emerged to test the assumptions underlying the proposals and push for the exploration of less intrusive alternative solutions to whatever genuine needs may be found to exist.

A group of citizens in Ghent formed a group called Protect Ghent and have worked tirelessly to study the complex issues presented by the NYSEG proposal, raise community awareness, and participate responsibility and professionally in the legal proceedings in which the matter will be decided. Numerous grassroots organizations have sprung up in opposition to the Energy Highway proposals. A coalition has emerged calling itself the Hudson Valley Smart Energy Coalition. Our friends at Scenic Hudson have taken the lead in organizing and coordinating this effort, in which municipalities, environmental and conservation groups, and community leaders from several potentially affected Hudson Valley counties are participating.

The Columbia Land Conservancy shares the concerns voiced by those challenging these proposals. We are participating in both coalition efforts and applaud the tremendous amount of time, energy and talent that has to date gone into their work.

Why Is This Happening?

The proposals differ in many respects. In the case of Ghent, NYSEG contends that it needs to build a brand new 11.5 mile, 115 kilovolt line and in addition expand several miles of existing line in order to improve service and create redundancy in the event of future power outages. The more extensive Energy Highway proposal calls for the construction of 345 kilovolts of new transmission capacity to bring electricity from a sub-station near Utica to mid-Dutchess County. The project addresses what is said to be a major deficiency in the State’s aged energy infrastructure. Both proposals are pending before the State’s Public Service Commission (PSC), the agency charged with ruling on all aspects of proposed energy projects and issuing the necessary permits.

What Are the Issues?

On the face of it, the rationale for both proposals presents serious questions. The need for adequate and reliable energy is obvious. The contention that our energy infrastructure is badly in need of an upgrade is eminently plausible. In both cases, the basic questions are whether there really is a need for the additional service that is being proposed and if so, are there other means of meeting that need? What are they? What would they cost? Could they be implemented with less adverse impact on our communities and on the land – what are the pros and cons?

Both Protect Ghent and the Hudson Valley Smart Energy Alliance are committed to participating in the administrative proceedings before the PSC, raising these questions and clearly demonstrating the burden the proposed power lines will impose on our communities and our environment. They are fighting to ensure an intelligent review of the proposals and to ensure that any plan that is approved will be framed in the best possible, least damaging manner. They are pressing for a concrete demonstration of need and actively exploring alternatives such as energy conservation, better management of existing resources and local power generation closer to the point of consumption. They vigorously contend that if the need cannot be met in any other way, new transmission lines should be placed underground, on existing towers or at the very least, entirely within existing rights of way.

Why This Matters To All of Us

The issues surrounding the power line proposals raise fundamental questions about the future of our area. At CLC, we think about that future all the time. Columbia County is uniquely rich in scenic and natural resources. For whatever reasons, we have escaped the most dramatic incursions of commercial and suburban development that have characterized many of our neighboring Hudson Valley communities. A tangible, if elusive element of “rural character” continues to permeate our community life. These qualities are highly valued by the vast majority who live here. They are the qualities that make it such a great place to live, work and maintain a business.

The future of Columbia County as we know it – our communities, our landscape and our economy – depends upon the continued health and vitality of the natural lands and open spaces that characterize this area. We need to conserve these assets. We need to recognize they are our core strength and design an economic development strategy that takes advantage of them. We need to promote tourism, farming and other compatible economic pursuits. And we must resist development, including infrastructure development like these power line proposals, that would jeopardize our landscape and community character.

Whatever the merits of the NYSEG proposal, no one can disagree that a new 11.5 mile power line in Ghent would impose a stark and intrusive scar on an otherwise bucolic landscape. And whatever the merits of the Energy Highway ideas, the widening of existing corridors and construction of enormous additional metal towers with multiple transmission lines will solidify the presence of an overwhelming industrial facility across a huge swath of our countryside. In both projects, construction activities will inevitably degrade or destroy large areas of field, forest and wetlands. The construction, presence and maintenance of the lines will have disruptive impacts on plants and animals well beyond the rights of way. The projects will in addition have a devastating impact on property values.

Stay Tuned, Lend Your Voice

Both projects continue to undergo review in proceedings before the PSC. There have been some hopeful developments. In the NYSEG matter, PSC staff has identified a far less intrusive alternative. The outpouring of concern over the Energy Highway has led Governor Cuomo to articulate a strong policy preference that any new transmission lines be constructed within existing rights of way. But the ultimate outcome is entirely up for grabs, and continuing vigorous participation and advocacy is essential. If you share these concerns, make your feelings known and support the coalition efforts. Status updates and information about how to communicate with the PSC can be found here and here.
Click to download a printable version. Land Matters March 7 2014


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