"We should have won. We had the law on our side." – Jim Galm
Regardless of whether eastern Geauga County residents consider installation of FirstEnergy Corp.’s new high-tension wires a win, loss or draw, the power is on.
Since the project was given the green light about six years ago, at least three sectors have come into play:?The utility aimed to make power more reliable. Property owners opposed having easements cross their land. Industry wanted to remedy unpredictable power outages.
Conflict between property owners and Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company was sparked in 2007 when the easement corridor was delineated through fields, farmland and woodlands along state Route 528 in Thompson, Montville and Huntsburg townships.
Despite numerous legal battles, FirstEnergy broke ground on the $30 million project in 2010, said Scott Tipton, a CEI planning engineer, in February.
A Project to Provide Redundancy
Tall wood poles march across country carrying 138-kilovolt transmission lines from the intersection of Interstate 90 and Route 528 to a substation in Huntsburg Township on U.S. 322, a 14.7 traverse, Tipton said.
The substation was the first part of the project and took about a year to build. It accounts for about $10 million of CEI’s investment, he said, or a third of the total cost.
“The whole reason for the project is to provide redundancy,” FirstEnergy spokesman Mark Durbin said.
He explained the use of the phrase.
When power has gone out in Northeast Ohio, repairs often took hours because there was no alternative way to route power to users, Durbin said.
While residents might not mind starting up generators or lighting candles, local businesses had bigger headaches. Computers and cash registers would shut down and production lines in industrial plants would grind to a halt. Costs were high.
“There’s a lot of industrial activity in Middlefield. They needed a reliable supply of power for the future,” Durbin said.
Years passed as company lawyers negotiated with property owners and worked to get the infrastructure underway. The recession that saw area industries draw back, downsize or disappear had many people wondering why CEI continued with the project. But the utility giant was planning for the future.
“It was something we felt would be needed as the area grows,” Durbin said. “You want to try to stay ahead of the curve and have enough distribution to meet the needs.”
Less Wire, More Reliability
Now, the electricity flows from a substation in Madison Township to the new Huntsburg substation, Durbin said, where the138 kilovolts are routed to another substation in Claridon Township, where the transmission is stepped down to lines carrying 36Kv.
The new system shortens the length of lines serving the area from 25 miles to about 12 miles, which means less risk of outages, Tipton said.
It also gives the electric company the flexibility to reroute power around a damaged wire or failed transformer, so power can come up quickly down the line, Durbin said.
“Because we have this substation and line doesn’t mean there’s never going to be an outage,” he said, adding cars will still knock down poles and trees will still fall across wires.
The cost, however, is minimized.
“It gives us more flexibility,” said Durbin.
The plan is that smaller sections of the grid would be affected and, once repairs made, the system automatically would reset itself, he said.
“That’s still being tested in this part of our territory,” Tipton said.
A wireless communication system has been installed in much of Geauga County for that reason. If it passes the test, it may be installed in other communities, he said.
“They’ll use it in the rest of Ohio, resulting in fewer outages of shorter duration,” Durbin said, adding that limiting the extent of the outages is the goal.
Will electric rates increase to help CEI cover its costs for the new system? The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) has agreed to allow FirstEnergy to insert some increase into a customer’s base charge, he said.
“Ultimately, the people who benefit from the system are the ones who pay for it,” he said.
The Ohio Power Siting Board determined the location of the transmission line. It also was responsible for hearing objections from landowners.
The Citizens Advocating Responsible Energy (CARE) lodged numerous objections and complaints, but the OPSB came down on the side of the utility and industry.
“The siting process worked precisely as designed,” Durbin said. “The siting board saw this was the preferred route for this line and the need of this part of Ohio for this delivery system. The process played out.”
CEI had the option of using eminent domain to acquire easements across properties, but it wasn’t actually put in play, he said, although some people took the process all the way.
FirstEnergy negotiated for every site, Tipton said, and succeeded in acquiring easements after several years.
“At the end of the day, we got what we had to get,” Durbin said. “We limited the impact as much as possible. The (transmission lines) are unobtrusive and still functional.”
Middlefield Industry Relieved
From an industrial production point of view, reliable electricity is a must. When power goes down unexpectedly, companies can lose thousands of dollars an hour.
Dillen Products Inc., on the eastern edge of Middlefield Village, will benefit tremendously from CEI’s redesign of its power system.
Dillen has 125 machines producing a line of plastic pots, trays and other items used in the nursery industry.
Manager Ben Garlich said the business loses about $8,000 an hour when that equipment suddenly becomes idle. Workers sit around waiting and managers don’t know if they should send them home or keep them at work, Garlich said.
If there is a brownout, or a spike in electricity, motors can burn out and have to be replaced. Restarting can be unpredictable.
“The cost is staggering,” said Garlich.
This winter, however, has brought more reliable power to the plant and there have been no outages, he said.
“We have so much less exposure to incidents,” Garlich said. “No voltage jumps or fluctuations. All that has leveled out.”
Dillen and other companies might see rate increases, but CEI has made a capital investment that is vital to the community, he said.
Middlefield Village also is in line for growth in its industrial sector. East of Dillen, 200 acres are being parceled off for industrial development.
Garlich, who also is village mayor, and others in the village administration and on council have commented that the availability of reliable energy is a plus in attracting business to the community and encouraging those already there to expand.
The new power system also serves communities in Ashtabula County, such as Rome and Orwell, Tipton said.
CARE Appeals Denied
Less enthralled with the project are those property owners who essentially were forced to sell easements across their land so CEI’s dream could become reality.
Jim Galm, president of CARE, said he recently heard, for the first time, electricity humming through the wires crossing his family’s 50-acre farm.
Several dozen property owners formed CARE when the OPSB moved the proposed corridor from Clay Street to Route 528. CARE took its case to the siting board without success.
“We presented a lot of good facts. Our case was turned down,” Galm said. “I did not feel our case had a fair hearing.”
CARE took their case to the Ohio Supreme Court, arguing PUCO and the OPSB had erred, but to no avail.
“We should have won. We had the law on our side,” Galm said, but the court ruled in favor of the OPSB and FirstEnergy. “We had no further resources to try to stop the project.”
Although eminent domain is a tool usually used by government bodies, in certain circumstances the state can grant it to a utility, Galm said.
One by one, property owners settled.
“Some property owners probably decided to sell easements based on an offer made in 2007 to 2009. Other wanted a better settlement and held out for more money,” said Galm.
A few held out.
“They said, ‘If you want to take my property away from me, you’ll have to fight for it,’” he said.
One Bitter Victory
One CARE member wouldn’t settle and was awarded considerably more money than FirstEnergy offered, Galm said.
George and Natalie Davet, who own 120 acres in Thompson, learned about a year ago they had won their case in Geauga County Probate Court. They weren’t saying how much they were awarded, but it wasn’t a satisfactory victory.
“We did have a good day in court,” Natalie said. “We’d rather have the land and not the power lines.”
The corridor zigzags through their property, George said, causing FirstEnergy to use about 20 percent more wire and poles than they would have needed with a more direct, less invasive approach.
“They’re very abusive people to deal with,” he said.
Other landowners who signed off with less of a fight were given a choice of where the easements would go, he said.
“The visiting judge wouldn’t let me argue about electromagnetic fields. It was like they weren’t even there,” George said. “I think I was fortunate to get a good jury.”
Galm feels a similar antipathy, looking across his land.
The acreage his family has owned for 100 years is not the same since the lines went up, Galm said. The crews cleared more woods and brush than he’d expected and the final product is painful to see.
“They took the property away and put a hole in it,” he said.
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