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Stopping Coal In Its Tracks

Coal states want to create an energy transmission superhighway straight to East Coast power markets, effectively locking the eastern seaboard into dirty, coal-fired power for generations. Abigail Dillen, VP of Litigation for Climate & Energy, describes how Earthjustice was able to successfully put the brakes on the coal companies.

Why are coal companies interested in the East Coast power market?

Power companies are claiming that new power lines need to be built from coal plants in the Ohio River Valley to supply what they claim are unmet power needs on the east coast. One of these lines, the Potomac-Appalachian Transmission Highline (PATH), would transport energy from coal country in West Virginia up through Virginia and Maryland and ultimately into New Jersey and New York.

What’s really driving this and other proposed lines is not a power gap but rather a lucrative eastern energy market. Generators get paid for the electricity that they sell at a marginal price, which is the price of the most expensive electricity that’s used at any given time. On the east coast, more expensive natural gas is on the margin.

So if you’re a Midwest coal plant shipping power out east, you’ll get paid more than if you sent your power to Ohio or West Virginia where your competitors are also coal plants selling artificially cheap coal power. This is a major economic incentive for the utilities with big coal portfolios to develop west-to-east transmission lines.

"We need to invest in a grid that lets us phase out old dirty generators and maximize clean new solutions as quickly as possible. To make that investment we have to do some smart planning."

But importing more coal power is exactly what many eastern states are trying not to do. Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York and the New England states are all participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) with the goal of cutting carbon emissions from electricity generation. Importing lots of coal-fired power completely undercuts this effort.

Today, the Northeast is one of the few regions in the country that’s not terribly dependent on coal-fired power, and it would be in everyone’s interest to keep it that way.

How was Earthjustice able to successfully challenge the PATH line the first time around?

We were able to convince a hearing examiner in Virginia that it was worth considering whether the PATH line was really needed given the successes we are having with energy efficiency and other conservation programs.

If a company wants to build a new transmission line, it generally has to go to the state utility commission and prove the new line is genuinely needed. Otherwise, ratepayers will be paying for projects that don’t really help them. In this case, the PATH developers— subsidiaries of American Electric Power and Allegheny Energy, two of the dirtiest power producers in the country—said the line was absolutely needed in 2014 to maintain electric reliability, or in other words, to keep the lights on. We presented expert testimony that said, basically, “Take a good look at all of these programs that are reducing our need for electricity, and you’ll see that this $2 billion-project won’t be needed for many more years into the future, if ever, because we just don’t need all of this power from the West.” The hearing examiner ordered the companies to do the analysis our expert was suggesting, and their new analyses showed that we were right. The companies had to concede the project was not needed in 2014, and they withdrew their application.

This was a great result for us. It proved how much of a difference these energy efficiency and other clean energy programs are making. And it stalled this project at a crucial time. Now AEP and Allegheny are applying once again for state approvals to build the PATH line, but our arguments against it have gotten even better. Another utility has come up with much less intrusive, lower cost solution that we expect can address any genuine reliability issues for years to come without costing ratepayers $2 billion and without bringing lots of new coal-fired power to the east coast.

How is Earthjustice working to influence future transmission line planning?

The PATH case is a great example demonstrating why planners need to account for lower-cost options to meet demand. We want this kind of planning to happen everywhere. Following our case, the biggest grid operator in the country, PJM Interconnection, is now moving toward a better planning model that accounts for non-transmission alternatives including energy efficiency and conservation programs. We also have some very progressive Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) proposals pending right now, so we want to seize this opportunity to get grid operators all across the country to be embracing clean energy solutions more proactively.

We’re encouraging the (FERC) to start requiring all transmission planners to account for the policies and regulations that are going to drive the evolution of the grid over the next couple of decades—we’re talking about efficiency standards and also renewable portfolio standards that will require large-scale integration of wind, solar and other renewable generation into the electric system. We’re also talking about important air, water and waste regulations that are going to force some of our least efficient, dirtiest power plants to make long overdue retirements. The generation mix is going to change, and we are finding new ways to meet our energy needs. We need to invest in a grid that lets us phase out old dirty generators and maximize clean new solutions as quickly as possible. To make that investment we have to do some smart planning.

We have a progressive FERC and we are defending its authority to implement needed reforms in the strongest way possible. After years of litigation by Earthjustice lawyers, EPA is poised to issue several regulations that will clean up the power sector and give clean energy the competitive advantage it deserves. And with cases like PATH, we are gaining some terrific practical insights into the way grid planning ought to work. If we are able to stop PATH and other lines like it, we will be able to measure that victory in terms of millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions avoided. If our broader national efforts are successful, we and our allies will be hastening a desperately needed transition into a more sustainable energy future.

Abigail Dillen
VP of Litigation, Climate & Energy