The fight to keep a future 345,000 volt transmission line in Northwest Arkansas and out of Southwest Missouri was renewed Monday when the Arkansas Public Service Commission (APSC) reopened its proceedings regarding the line proposed by Southwestern Electric Power Co. (SWEPCO), a subsidiary of American Electric Power (AEP).
A public statement announcing the decision by the APSC to reopen the case reads: “The line is planned to assure future reliability of the electric transmission system serving the northern Arkansas and southern Missouri region.”
“The commission has granted the petitions for rehearing from both SWEPCO and Save The Ozarks; and they will be looking at both the need for the project and the routing of the facilities,” Peter Main, SWEPCO director of corporate communications, said.
Main said they still await a procedural schedule for the commission to receive any information and any hearings that may go before the commission.
“Our continuing interest and responsibility is providing a reliable flow of electricity to utilities and their customers across the region,” said Venita McCellon-Allen, SWEPCO president and chief operating officer. “It is important that we do so in a manner that strikes a balance between the need for improving electric reliability and respecting people’s property and the environment.”
In consultation with the Southwest Power Pool (SPP), the Regional Transmission Organization responsible for a reliable transmission system for parts of Arkansas, Missouri and seven other states, SWEPCO plans to present the additional evidence the APSC has requested. SPP determined that upgrades are needed to address system overloads and to improve long-term reliability for the region. As a result of that finding, SPP issued a Notification to Construct directing SWEPCO and AEP to build a 345-kV line to reinforce the regional transmission grid.
In January, APSC issued orders authorizing SWEPCO to construct the Arkansas portion of those facilities along a 56-mile route, with segments in Arkansas and Missouri, connecting the Shipe Road Station near Centerton in Benton County, Ark., with a new Kings River Station near Berryville in Carroll County, Ark. In response to intervenors’ requests, including SWEPCO’s request for a limited rehearing, the APSC called for additional evidence on proposed transmission line routing and need for the facilities.
“The commission’s decision to review routing of the line offers an opportunity to address areas of concern about location of transmission facilities. Identifying a reasonable route for a transmission line in this region is challenging, given the I-540/I-49 corridor, Beaver Lake, and numerous communities and special places across the Ozarks. We will continue to seek an appropriate balance in the location of any transmission facilities,” McCellon-Allen said. “As we continue with these proceedings, we will keep landowners, public officials and other stakeholders informed about the project.”
Main said SWEPCO filed its application with the APSC on April 3, 2013. He said an extensive review process included public comment hearings in Eureka Springs and Rogers in July, and a week-long evidentiary hearing was held in August. Main said the administrative law judge’s orders were issued Jan. 17 and 21 of this year, and became a final order of the APSC on Feb. 16, approving the project and indicating there is a need for the facilities and selecting a route for the line.
Main said the commission selected Route 109.
“It’s a 56-mile route that includes about 25 miles in McDonald and Barry counties in Missouri, as well as segments in Benton and Carroll counties in Arkansas.”
He said SWEPCO submitted a petition for limited rehearing in March, asking the commission reconsider its decision on the choice of the route.
“So we were pleased the commission approved the need for the line, but we asked them to reconsider their choice of the route and asked them to look again at originally proposed Route 33, which is entirely within Benton and Carroll Counties in Arkansas,” he said. “It’s the most direct route and we believe provides the best balance of factors in routing a transmission line.”
Within the APSC Order dated June 9, it states that Administrative Law Judge Connie C. Griffin, the Presiding Officer (PO), “found that Route 109, which crosses Northwest Arkansas and Southwest Missouri, best fulfills the requirements of Ark. Code, is both feasible and reasonable” and is “the best route.” The PO concluded that Routes 33 and 108 are unreasonable, “Route 109 is the only reasonable route.”
Regarding SWEPCO’s petition, the order states: In its petition, SWEPCO contends that the PO failed to find facts sufficient to reject SWEPCO’s preferred Route 33. SWEPCO argues that concerns about Route 33 could be ameliorated by minor changes, and that Route 33 should be approved.
The order stated several parties filed responses to SWEPCO’s petition. The Bennett Intervenors claim that SWEPCO lacks standing to seek rehearing because SWEPCO “got exactly what it sought, permission to build on one of its six routes.” They also state that the PO’s decision that Route 33 is unreasonable is supported by the record.
It continues: Intervenor City of Garfield (Ark.) asks that SWEPCO’s petition be denied, because the decision of the PO rejecting Route 33 “is well-reasoned and supported by sufficient findings of fact.”
The city further states, however, that if the Commission decides to allow additional evidence, it should consider evidence of the general economic, social, and aesthetic impacts of Route 33 on the City, and the effects of routing the proposed 345 kV transmission line close to the historically significant Garfield Elementary School.
Intervenor Save the Ozarks (STO) says that the PO correctly found that Route 33 is unreasonable given its “aesthetic (and resulting economic) impacts, which are based on its greater residential proximity and more crossing of major roads.
Within STO’s petition for rehearing, the order states: Intervenor STO also argues that rehearing should be granted, but for different reasons. STO contends that SWEPCO failed to prove the proposed 345 kV project is needed and failed fully to address available alternatives.
STO also says SWEPCO failed to obtain federal and state environmental permits, SWEPCO failed to resolve concerns of federal and state agencies about adverse impacts on parks, recreation areas, and historic sites, SWEPCO failed to demonstrate compliance with applicable Missouri law for Route 109, SWEPCO failed to provide notice to landowners along the Missouri portion of Route 109, and SWEPCO published notice in an Arkansas newspaper having a circulation of less than 20 percent in the affected counties and in no Missouri newspaper.
SPP disagrees with STO’s assertion that the need for the project was not established. SPP states it has responsibility for both transmission planning and expansion within its region, and is better suited to plan for the reliability of the region than a single entity, or STO’s witness Dr. Hyde Merrill.
SPP says that its planning process is based on a long-term vision for the region, not only to ensure reliability but also to ensure that the transmission grid is developed in a way that yields greater levels of economic, environmental, and public policy benefits.
Within its decision to grant the rehearing, the commission stated: While the evidence on need is disputed, the record in this docket does contain evidence that future reliability requires new or upgraded transmission facilities in Northwest Arkansas. STO’s witness Dr. Merrill contends that modification of existing 161 kV transmission lines or addition of 161 kV facilities, possibly using existing rights-of-way, may be sufficient to meet any increased transmission facility demands.
The decision continues: Considering all the evidence provided to date, the Commission finds that, while some transmission development in the area appears warranted, the record is presently insufficient to determine the need for the particular 345 kV project that has been proposed, whether that project is consistent with the public convenience and necessity, and whether the project represents an “acceptable adverse environmental impact, considering…the various alternatives, if any, and other pertinent considerations”
Accordingly, the commission grants rehearing for consideration of additional evidence on the need for, and the potential environmental impact of, the proposed 345 kV project.
Because the commission grants rehearing for consideration of additional evidence, the prior grant of the CECPN [Certificate of Environmental Compatibility and Public Need] for Route 109 is vacated. Whether a CECPN for transmission facilities should be granted and, if so, along what route will be determined after consideration of all the evidence.
A fact sheet provided by SWEPCO detailing seven criteria involved in the APCS determining the best route lists “costs of facilities” as the No. 1 factor, followed by health and safety concerns, engineering and technical concerns, ecological and environmental disruption, disruption to or interference with existing property uses, disruption to or interference with planned property uses, and aesthetic displeasure.
“Route 109 into Missouri is longer, and at a higher cost,” Main said.
SWEPCO’s proposed Route 33 would cover 48 miles, at an estimated cost of over $116 million and Route 109 would run 56 miles and cost more than $123 million, adding more than $6.5 million to the cost.
Upon first learning the APSC had approved the route going into Missouri in January, McDonald and Barry county officials organized to voice their opposition, and area state legislators stepped in to help support their constituents. After the APSC announced its decision for rehearing last week, Bill Lant, Dist. 159 state rep., said the order from the commission contained some information that is new to him.
“There’s a possibility that the 161 kV lines that are in existence, that they can add another to them utilizing the same footprint that they already have,” Lant said. He added that is one of the things that the APSC will look at. “I wouldn’t say that this totally eliminates the possibility of them doing anything in Missouri, but it sure appears as if it’s going to be a real long shot to try to utilize that Route 109.”
He feels the 345 kV project was a wish list, and Lant said he can’t blame SWEPCO for determining to bring an increased amount of energy through the system.
“But,” he said, “with the amount of opposition that they have had – and the opposition they have had has primarily come from Arkansas – the Save the Ozarks folks have done a marvelous job of keeping the pressure on this thing.”
If the APCS would ultimately decide on Route 109, Lant said they would still have a long, arduous process going through the Missouri Public Service Commission (MPSC).
“So I have to believe that it’s pretty well a done deal,” he concluded.
The process through the MPSC would include testimony from affected Missouri landowners, residents, officials and other affected parties, and Lant said that would be a hard road. To counter the possibility, he said eminent domain legislation was filed in both Missouri chambers.
“The senator who was running the hearing sure made them believe that there was a good possibility that we would work on that eminent domain law for them, and that’s the last thing they want us to do,” he said.
Lant said the point of that legislation was to get it to a senate hearing to have testimony from SWEPC on the record. He said Sen. Brad Lager was running the committee.
“And he told them in no uncertain terms that they were poking a grizzly with a stick if they thought they were going to run over us,” Lant said.
If needed, Lant said legislators are prepared to go forward with that bill.
In an earlier story, Keith Lindquist, McDonald County presiding commissioner, said hundreds of signatures of McDonald County landowners and residents were gathered to petition lawmakers, public service commissions and other officials to keep the transmission line out of Missouri.
Lindquist was unavailable for comment this week, but said in March when SWEPCO applied for the rehearing, “I think we feel confident now that Missouri is totally against it and the representatives and the senators are against it; and we feel like it’s to SWEPCO’s advantage and it’s cheaper to keep it down there. Actually everybody would like for it to stay down there including SWEPCO. We hope it’s a good thing. We hope it doesn’t wind back up here again.
“I see no reason why it has to come up out of the way into our two counties. It has a 150 feet right-of-way that it is taking, and there’s a lot of people whose property this would come across, and they’re not going to benefit from it at all, but they can’t use this 150 feet right-of-way underneath these power lines and the 150 feet tall poles right there at their front doors. I see no reason why we should support anything we are not getting a benefit from,” said Lindquist.
Main said they now await a separate order from the APCS to set a procedural schedule for additional testimony and hearings.
Additional information about the project can be found at AEPtransmission.com/Ozarks, or at www.swepco.com/shipekings.