Transmission Lines: Why We Fight

This summer, an unwanted clear-cut tore through the edge of the woods at Rick and Virginia Dorkey’s cattle farm near Bealeton, in Fauquier County.  Construction crews put up a line of gigantic metal towers on the farm, jutting far above the trees.  It’s impossible not to see them. The massive structures dominate the views across hayfields and pastures.

A shiny metal tower appears through their kitchen window.

The Dorkey’s farm was targeted for this transmission line—the 500-kV TrAIL line against which  PEC led a major fight, mobilizing intense citizen opposition—because their land had an existing power line right-of-way.  But the old line ran along 60-foot wooden poles.  The new line required an expanded right- of-way and runs on metal towers over twice as high—about 15 stories tall—with a visual impact that is simply brutal.

The towers straddle a 60 acre wetland that the Dorkeys are putting into conservation easement and its 200-foot wide right-of-way cuts into forests that buffer the wetland.

Mrs. Dorkey protests, “They say they’re only taking an acre here or two acres there.  What they’re doing is destroying my farm!”

The Dorkeys are taking their case to court, seeking fair compensation for Dominion’s seizure of the expanded right-of-way.  The effects on their property values are likely to be drastic, Mrs. Dorkey points out.  Ugly towers ruin the farm’s rural appeal, and concerns about the health effects of the line’s electromagnetic field, on both people and farm animals, will deter potential buyers.  “Who would buy this, if they could buy another farm somewhere else, without the transmission line?” she asks.

At least they have recourse, Mrs. Dorkey points out.  The line harms their neighbors, as well, by mangling formerly pastoral views, but Dominion has no intention of compensating landowners unless the line crosses directly over their property.

Nor will communities along the line’s path—through the Shenandoah Valley, over the Blue Ridge Mountains and across Rappahannock, Culpeper, Fauquier and Loudoun Counties—be reimbursed for damage done to resources of benefit to the public.  The line harms watersheds through loss of tree cover and potential use of herbicides to clear the right-of-way.  It slashes through wildlife habitat and creates inroads for invasive species.  It erects jarringly industrial structures over historic landscapes, and intrudes on views from country roads, public parks and the Rappahannock River, a State Scenic River.

This is why PEC led such a vigorous fight against the TrAIL line and why we continue to take a stand against a barrage of transmission line proposals that could impact the Piedmont.

“What we can see on the ground as TrAIL goes up reinforces the need for citizen involvement,” says PEC President Chris Miller.  “This is what happens when utility companies choose our future.”

To view more images of TrAIL (or to share your own), visit our TrAIL Flickr Group.

In the TrAIL case, PEC and our allies argued that the line was an unnecessary conduit intended to  expand markets for cheap, dirty coal, and we showed how alternative solutions could better meet projected demand for electricity. Thousands of citizens opposed the line, and hundreds submitted formal, detailed comments about how it would impact their lives.  Unfortunately, in 2008, the State Corporation Commission (SCC) bowed to the will of Dominion and approved the line, which is now under construction.

A lot of good came out of the fight against TrAIL:

  • Pressure from citizens moved Dominion to offer energy conservation options that it had resisted for years.
  • Information from the TrAIL case was put to good use in the fight against PATH, another unnecessary major transmission line proposal, which was temporarily withdrawn. 
  • PEC won a federal case that stopped the U.S. government from wielding unprecedented authority to overrule states’ decisions on transmission lines.
  • PEC has emerged as a much-needed voice for alternatives to a nationwide building spree of new transmission lines.

But these successes don’t ease the blow to people whose lives are impacted by TrAIL.  And we will need to build on them in order to prevent more unnecessary transmission lines through the Piedmont.  Since the TrAIL case began, we have already faced proposals for the PATH line (now gearing up for a second round), an expanded Loudoun-Middleburg line (which was scaled back from 9.5 miles to 4 miles) and a new proposal to expand a transmission line through the Southwest Mountains Rural Historic District in Albemarle (see box).

To protect our region, PEC has needed to take a stand at the national level.  Among other policy issues, a purported “green” agenda is being used to justify a push for thousands of miles of new, high-voltage transmission lines.  Proponents argue that a “new national grid” is necessary to carry renewable energy from the interior of the country to high-demand cities on the coasts.  But, in the absence of any system that puts a price on carbon, there is no reason why new transmission lines would carry cleaner power—as PEC has testified before the U.S. Congress, alerted the nationwide conservation community and explained in national media.  The cheapest power will continue flowing through the wires, and the cheapest power is likely to remain coal power, given the current lack of political will for an overhaul of our energy economy.  (To learn more, read “Higher Power,” an article that PEC published in the magazine Saving Land.  You can find it at )

“We can see the impacts that transmission lines have on people’s lives,” says PEC’s Transmission Project Legal Analyst, Rob Marmet. “That’s why PEC, at the local, state and national level, has been pushing for smarter solutions—efficiency first, a smarter transmission grid and cleaner power generation located near demand, so that people have more ability to take charge of decisions about energy.”