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Commentary: New Santee Cooper power line also would be vulnerable to storms

Tornado rips through Johns Island (copy)

The tornado that touched down on Johns Island in September 2015 flattened 2 square miles of pine forest along River Road and damaged dozens of homes. If a pair of high-voltage transmission lines, a main circuit and a backup circuit, had been in that location in the same right of way, both would have been obliterated, leaving the islands blacked out for days if not weeks.

How would you like 80-foot steel poles to suddenly appear at the bottom of your garden, striding across unspoiled marshes and maritime woodlands? The sky skewered by high-voltage conductors? Broad swaths of trees clear-cut? Seizure of residential easements by eminent domain? That’s exactly what Santee Cooper is proposing, ostensibly to improve the reliability of Johns Island’s electric grid.

Islanders are up in arms. We protest the visual blight, Santee Cooper’s implausible justification, shoddy noncompliant permit application, refusal to consider a burial option, lack of community engagement, human exposure to high-energy electromagnetic radiation, the destruction of wildlife habitat by widespread clearing of trees, and the erosion of home values.

We all acknowledge that reliability is an essential attribute of an electric grid. Reliability is Santee Cooper’s responsibility, and a right of its fee-paying customers. One hundred percent reliability is unattainable, but well-designed backup systems can improve grid survival in the face of adverse weather. Santee Cooper says that if such weather were to knock out the main 230 kV power line that supplies Johns, Wadmalaw, Kiawah and Seabrook islands, its proposed new line would ensure continued delivery of electricity to everyone.

Unfortunately, Santee Cooper’s map of its proposed backup shows it running for more than two miles in the same right of way as the main 230 kV power line. Adverse weather in this vicinity would impact both lines. The tornado that touched down on Johns Island in September 2015 flattened 2 square miles of pine forest along River Road and damaged dozens of homes. If a pair of high-voltage transmission lines, a main circuit and a backup circuit, had been in that location in the same right of way, both would have been obliterated, leaving the islands blacked out for days if not weeks.

As a matter of fact, there is already an unused backup power line connecting the Church Creek substation in West Ashley to the Johns Island substation, a distance of almost nine miles. It was built in the 1980s as a backup, in the same right of way, to the main 230 kV line that supplies the sea islands from the Johns Island substation.

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Santee Cooper says this existing backup line cannot supply enough electricity to sea island residents and businesses. This can be fixed by upgrading the conductors, as proposed for the new power line. Steel poles carrying the existing backup line already connect the Church Creek substation to Bolton’s Landing, a distance of three miles. From there, new poles with upgraded conductors would parallel the main 230 kV line for six miles to the Johns Island substation, using existing right of way.

Thus, a less-costly 6-mile upgrade of the existing backup line would provide the same reliability as Santee Cooper’s proposed 15-mile power line, five miles of which will require creation of new 100-foot-wide rights of way across unspoiled marshes, tidal creeks and residential neighborhoods, with inevitable environmental and visual impacts.

Bottom line: Santee Cooper’s remedial new power line is vulnerable to failure by the same catastrophic event that could destroy the main transmission line. If the basic premise underlying justification of the new line is faulty, moving ahead compounds this error at great environmental, economic and social cost.

We mourn the loss of rural quality of life on Johns Island and see Santee Cooper’s project as yet another example of uncontrolled development. Its vulnerable new construction is a step in the wrong direction. We have a responsibility to ensure preservation of our natural heritage for future generations. Would you tolerate this unjustified intrusion into your backyard?

Adam Smolka is an emeritus professor of medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina. He has lived on Johns Island for more than 30 years.

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