Scrapped Plans for Power Lines Protect Habitats from Energy Development

Thousands of acres are saved when plans for two transmission lines meet their end.

Energy companies had a plan to carry power to the Northeast: Two transmission lines buzzing with electricity and running 425 miles through four states—West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. Building the massive towers and stringing the high-voltage lines, however, would require cutting down 8,600 acres of forested wetlands and upland habitat, and the route would pass through Maryland’s Mattawoman Creek Important Bird Area. The environmental cost seemed too high to Audubon and a number of other conservation groups, especially since the demand for energy could be met with increased efficiency and other measures. In August, bowing to pressure from the groups, the energy companies scrapped the plans, thus protecting thousands of acres from development and preventing up to eight million tons of carbon from being released into the atmosphere every year.

“The projects would have gone forward had it not been for the environmental community,” says Ginny Kreitler, Audubon’s senior adviser for energy and environment. “What [the decision] is pointing out is that energy planning really is land-use planning.”

During the past decade, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, has made the approval process for transmission lines more transparent, allowing stakeholders like state utility commissions and environmental groups to weigh in on its decisions. David Curson, director of bird conservation for Audubon Maryland-DC, submitted comments on one of the projects, pointing out that the wood thrush, the prothonotary warbler, and the Kentucky warbler—three neotropical migrants with declining populations—would have been particularly affected. Environmentalists also expressed concern for the potential effect on water quality in Chesapeake Bay. The arguments led to a new analysis, which showed a decrease in demand and other options for supplying electricity.

Instead of building massive and expensive infrastructure, the utility companies will meet the regions energy needs by paying high-demand companies to reduce their electricity use for specified amounts of time. “The decision hinged on looking at the role of the energy-efficiency programs and the state energy policies, and asking that they be examined,” says Kreitler. “It’s a precedent.”

This story originally ran in the November-December 2012 issue as "Energy Stars."