Power Struggle: the Public and the Power Line

In the late 1970s residents of upstate Yew York were locked in a power struggle with the Power Authority of the State of New York over the routing of a 765-kilovolt power line.

| March/April 1980

  • 062 powerline controversy
    TOP LEFT: Mohawk Indian Celia Laffin confronts "Frenchy," a worker hired by PASNY to fell the Barse elm. BOTTOM LEFT: John Lauzon protects his own dairy farm. RIGHT: A 175 foot (and not yet wired) 765-kilovolt power line tower dwarfs both "the normal-sized" transmission setup and the full-grown man in this photo.

  • 062 powerline controversy

This is a story about a power struggle between a large state utility and the small bunch of independent and stubborn rural folks who joined together to fight it.

And you might as well know right now that the people lost: The electric company in question (the Power Authority of the State of New York) successfully usurped large pieces of land and constructed an ugly, irritating, and possibly dangerous 765-kilovolt power line. In fact, the 155 mile stretch of giant transmission cables is "on line" today, and carrying imported electric current from Quebec ... across prime upstate farmland ... and down toward urban New York City.

So, in one sense, the outcome of this story will be a simple one: The utility did get its way and did build its huge line. However, if you look closely at the results of the people-versus-power-line conflict, you might just conclude that the rural New Yorkers (along with a lot of folks in different states who are right now fighting other electric companies) are — in the long-run energy battle — actually going to win . . . and partly as a result of this particular power line struggle.

But the reasons for that optimistic conclusion won't be clear to you unless we back up and tell this tale from the very beginning, starting with . . .

The Power Company

In 1973, the Power Authority of the State of New York (PASNY) decided to build a 155-mile, 765-kilovolt electric line from Fort Covington (a town near the Canadian border) south to Utica. Because PASNY is owned by the state, the utility could sell tax-free bonds to conveniently raise all the funds necessary for the immense construction job. The corporation could also — by virtue of being "public" — easily sidestep the court injunctions and environmental restrictions that would apply to any privately owned company.

Moreover, PASNY had little trouble exercising the power of eminent domain and taking the needed land right-of-ways from the regional farmers . . . while offering as little as $150 an acre for these permanent land-use privileges and leaving the acreage's "owners" stuck with paying the annual property taxes! And on top of such none-too-subtle maneuvers, the giant public corporation (unlike any private company) didn't have to demonstrate to anyone that there was an economic or energy need for the large-scale construction/land-grabbing project to begin with!

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