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Cheap power to Northeast US: a mixed blessing

At least eight transmission lines are planned to connect the region with Midwestern coal plants.

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A major move to boost grid capacity is under way to bring more cheap coal-fired electricity to the high-cost Northeast. New transmission lines could lower utility bills for millions of consumers and avert blackouts that sometimes hobble the region.

At least eight lines, stretching some 2,000 miles through six states at an estimated cost of more than $9 billion, are under active consideration or have been formally proposed. But the plan faces rising resistance.

The move would send high-voltage wires and towers up to 200-feet high through some of the most scenic areas of the mid-Atlantic states, where they could conflict with views of national parks, dedicated conservation easements, and Civil War and other historic sites, It would change the Northeast's energy mix, boosting its reliance on coal-fired energy while undercutting state efforts to move to renewable power and cut greenhouse-gas emissions, critics say.

And for the first time, final say on these projects would lie not with the states, which have often balked at siting transmission lines, but with the US Department of Energy, which supports the idea. Two weeks ago, it unveiled its plan for "national corridors" for power lines to improve reliability and reduce grid "congestion."

"These draft [corridor] designations set us on the path to modernize our constrained and congested electric power infrastructure," Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said in a statement at the April 26 unveiling of the corridors.

But critics say profits – not reliability – are the driving factor behind these projects.

"This is really all about transferring inexpensive coal power into areas of the country that have higher-priced electricity," says Mark Brownstein, a managing director in the climate and air program at New York-based Environmental Defense. "These parts of the country have taken a stand to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.... So these lines become pipelines that undo policy positions that the Northeast has taken."

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