Energy Highway Loses When it Comes to Public Policies

I've written previously about Gov. Andrew Cuomo's "Energy Highway" initiative--the proposal to build high-voltage transmission lines through New York's Hudson River Valley. Costing up to $1 billion and featuring new towers as high as 120 feet, the lines would cut a swath through 25 communities in seven counties, bisecting farms and wildlife habitat, and spoiling magnificent views from popular parks and historic sites, including Franklin D. Roosevelt's home. Three years into its proceeding to vet 18 routes proposed by utility developers, the state Public Service Commission (PSC) has yet to demonstrate the projects would improve New York's energy grid or lower electric bills.

Recently, Scenic Hudson and our partners in the Hudson Valley Smart Energy Coalition (HVSEC) made a presentation at a Technical Conference convened by the PSC. The HVSEC is committed to achieving a 21st-century system that meets New York's energy demands while protecting the Hudson Valley's resources and quality of life.

Originally, the PSC planned to evaluate the need for the projects at the conference. It deferred that issue to a later date, instead focusing on the lines' potential environmental and visual impacts. Just prior to the conference, the PSC recommended eliminating 13 of the routes, including some posing egregious visual and environmental threats. The HVSEC endorses these recommendations. However, experts speaking on our behalf at the conference identified cultural and natural assets that could be marred forever if projects still under consideration move forward.

Introducing the consultants at the conference, I pointed out that the Hudson Valley has been named a National Heritage Area and the river running through it an American Heritage River--federal designations reflecting their extraordinary scenic, cultural and environmental resources. The National Trust for Historic Preservation also has recognized the valley's "mix of scenery and history that is unmatched anywhere else in the country."

In the absence of a showing of need for the projects, the PSC contends new transmission lines could be justified by "public policy" goals. However, many state laws and public policies give high priority to protecting the natural and cultural resources the towers threaten. These policies increase the burden of proof in determining whether there's a need for the new lines, and they point to higher mitigation requirements if any are approved.

For example, the Hudson Valley is one of only two regions in New York containing Scenic Areas of Statewide Significance under state and federal coastal management law--designations that reflect the historic and visual importance of these resources and provide regulatory protections for them. The projects also could compromise numerous state-designated Significant Coastal Fish and Wildlife Habitats, Significant Natural Communities, and federal- and state-classified wetlands. Protecting these resources is a public policy priority under the Hudson River Estuary Action Agenda, the New York Open Space Conservation Plan and the mission of the Hudson River Valley Greenway.

These assets also provide a foundation for Gov. Cuomo's regional economic development policies, particularly crucial in sustaining the Hudson Valley's tourism and agriculture sectors--two bright but fragile growth areas. An example of a thriving enterprise that could be impacted by the transmission lines is the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies near Rhinebeck, which attracts 25,000 visitors annually to its cutting-edge seminars. A recent study documented the economic benefits the institute provides, including 474 direct jobs and $29 million in sales. One of Omega's major attractions is its remote rural setting, now imperiled by proposed towers.

Public policies at all levels of government support the viability of the Hudson Valley's agricultural industry, including Agriculture and Farmland Protection Plans adopted by several counties and the governor's recent $20-million budget appropriation to protect valley farmland. Gov. Cuomo also has invested millions in branding for the region's local foods and products, while providing tax breaks for farm-based tourism. Some of the transmission proposals would directly jeopardize these policy initiatives and investments.

Simultaneously, Gov. Cuomo is advancing important public policies aimed at reducing New York's dependence on climate-change inducing fossil fuels and improving energy efficiency, including his Reforming the Energy Vision discussed in my prior blog.

The benefits Hudson Valley residents derive from our "green infrastructure" cannot be overstated. In addition to sustaining family farms critical for providing fresh, local food and businesses related to tourism and outdoor recreation, it promotes public health, helps keep our air and drinking water clean, and drives new economic growth by making the region an attractive place for businesses to relocate.

The bottom line is that these outdated projects cast a shadow over the very assets that generate jobs and contribute to the valley's quality of life. Proposals that would damage prime natural resources and heritage sites--including the place where FDR guided the nation through the Great Depression and World War II--should be relegated to the waste-bin of history.