Whether it’s wind turbines in Annapolis, Western Maryland or Ocean City, or power poles and pathways in Calvert, the debate keeps coming closer. Do you want affordable, reliable and accessible power? Or do you want to protect the environment, starting with your own backyard?
In the court of public opinion, Calvert County won against local electrical provider Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative, SMECO, bringing down dozens of behemoth power poles.
The debate has entered a new round, and this time the point of contention is bigger than the poles that carry the coveted power. It begins with a piece of farmland, bordered by woodlands, crisscrossed by streams. The land is pretty, yes, but it’s also a protective buffer that naturally manages erosion and stops polluted runoff from entering Chesapeake Bay.
This time the court isn’t public opinion. It’s Maryland’s Public Service Commission, where environmental protection is not the coin of the realm.
Pepco’s Power Pathway
Potomac Electric Power Company (Pepco) is an outsider in Chesapeake Country.
Most of the area is powered by BG&E and SMECO. Pepco provides electrical service to Washington, DC, and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. But the power company is making tracks through Calvert County as part of its multi-state Mid-Atlantic Power Pathway to sell electricity to Delaware and to relieve the congested power grid.
The Power Pathway starts at Possum Point, a power station in Northern Virginia where fossil fuels — coal, natural gas or oil — are converted into electricity. Newly generated electricity crosses the Potomac River to Chalk Point in Prince George’s County.
Pepco’s proposed next step enters Calvert County via new high-voltage towers that would cross over the Patuxent River. The path crosses Calvert, above ground, using the existing high-voltage right of way installed in the mid 1970s for Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant. The route continues to a yet-to-be-built converter station where the raw electric current will be converted to direct current for the next leg of its journey. From that converter station, the power would go underground for the Bay crossing, resurfacing on the Eastern Shore and continuing into Delaware.
“The MAPP line, which crosses three states, will bring reliable and more economical power to the region.” That’s Pepco’s official line.
Someday Pepco’s foresight may help Chesapeake Country by reducing congestion on the big grid during peak power demands. It may even reduce or eliminate the current congestion fee on our electric bills.
For now though, the big plan stumbles in the tiny Calvert community of Port Republic. That’s where Pepco wants to build its converter station, close to Calvert Cliffs’ existing transmission path.
On 34 pastoral acres at the crossroads of Route 2/4 and St. Leonard Road, Pepco wants to build two six-story buildings and an open-air sub-station. In a county without an escalator, a six-story building stands tall. The only other structure approaching that height is Calvert Memorial Hospital.
Even so, scale isn’t the main issue. That would be environmental, for Pepco’s Calvert Power Pathway substation would be built at the headwaters of Parkers Creek. A quarter-century of private-public partnerships have, so far, protected that watershed.
“The Parkers Creek watershed is one of Calvert County’s crown jewels,” says Karen Edgecombe, executive director of American Chestnut Land Trust. “Pepco’s proposal to occupy 34 acres of sensitive watershed lands in order to build its massive power conversion facilities just doesn’t make sense.”
Bay sense, that is.
If Pepco gets its way, both American Chestnut Land Trust and Calvert County fear for the survival of Parkers Creek and the Bay watershed into which it drains.
To get what’s at stake, you’ve got to know a bit about watersheds.
“A watershed is the boundary within which water flows to a receiving body of water, like the Chesapeake Bay,” explains Lora Harris of the University of Maryland Chesapeake Biological Laboratory.
Fifty-nine percent of people were stumped when asked by Purdue University researchers what watersheds were. Some high schoolers illustrated their definitions by drawing pictures of sheds.
So Harris wants you to think of a watershed as a bathtub. “The water that falls on the edges and sides of the bathtub flows down the drain,” she says.
Water flowing into the watershed carries everything it picks up along the way, including all sorts of contaminants.
Water runs fast over impervious surfaces like parking lots. Fast-moving water causes erosion. It also misses the natural filters of soil and vegetation. That raw water flows right into the Bay.
When a watershed is developed, every drop of runoff water that flows through it is polluted.
The American Chestnut Land Trust and Calvert County argue that a 34-acre, six-story industrial site on the headwaters of Parkers Creek would affect the creek’s water quality and the watershed’s ability to filter runoff before it gets to the Bay.
Environmentally Protected: Keep Out
Parkers Creek is one of the biggest and most environmentally sensitive watersheds in Calvert County. In a quarter-century, 4,000 border acres of marshes and wetlands have come under the protection of the state, the county, land conservation groups and individual property owners.
One thousand of those acres are owned by American Chestnut Land Trust. The trust manages another 1,800 acres owned by Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, Calvert County and the Nature Conservancy. The remaining acreage is protected by private owners who have chosen to give up their rights to develop their land.
Some of that acreage was Pepco’s first choice for its substation.
“They first came to the Trust in fall of 2008,” Edgecombe tells Bay Weekly. “They wanted to purchase one of our preserved properties for the conversion facility. We said no.”
Does Energy Have the Right of Way?
Calvert County already hosts two other major energy companies, Constellation Energy, owner of the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant, and Dominion Resources, owner of Cove Point Liquefied Natural Gas facility.
Neither invited Pepco to move in.
Thus evolved Pepco’s current plan, to build on 34 acres that have no preservation limitations. Two privately owned adjacent properties make up the site. Pepco has purchased one parcel, with the second under option.
The site is in a farm and forest district not zoned for industrial or commercial use. If Pepco were a regular business, it would have to get a waiver to current zoning — or go somewhere else. But in Maryland, utilities are exempt from local zoning laws.
The private land sale is perfectly legitimate, and Calvert County’s zoning ordinances are not applicable.
However, before Pepco’s plan can go forward, the Maryland Public Service Commission must issue a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity. Three factors guide the Public Service Commission: need for the project; costs to ratepayers who’ll be charged for the project on their utility bills; and the voice of local government.
The environment isn’t at issue with the Public Service Commission — unless Petitions to Intervene bring it up. Both Calvert County and American Chestnut Land Trust have done just that, and the Commission will consider their concerns in deciding whether to issue the needed certificate.
Pepco’s proposed expansion is welcome, the interveners say.
“We support the construction of a converter station on land that is currently zoned for industrial use and provides adequate space, security and appropriate infrastructure for such a facility,” Trust president Edward U. Graham wrote to the Calvert County Commissioners.
But not at Parkers Creek.
That precious environment is where this community draws its line.
“If you build something like this,” says Susan Shaw, president of the Calvert commissioners, “the impact on the watershed will be huge.”
Follow the Public Service Commission proceedings at: http://webapp.
psc.state.md.us/Intranet/home.cfm, case search 9179.
The American Chestnut Land Trust invites visitors to many activities from whacking invasive weeds to paddling canoes through Parkers Creek’s unspoiled salt marshes and wooded freshwater wetlands. Find invitations in 8 Days a Week or at www.acltweb.org.