The Virginia Electric and Power Company (VEPCO) and the Trans-Allegheny Interstate Line Company (TrAILCo) plan to build a 265-mile, 500-kilovolt transmission line between Loudoun County, Virginia, and Washington County, Pennsylvania. They claim that due to rapid growth in the Washington, DC metro area, energy consumption along the Potomac will likely continue to grow to levels unsupportable by the current infrastructure, and the anticipated blackouts and line failures would put them in violation of federal regulations. The State Corporation Commission approved the power line, and after a challenge by the Piedmont Environmental Council, the Supervisors of Fauquier County, Prince William County, and Culpeper County, and other interested groups, the Supreme Court upheld the construction permits.
In the case of Piedmont v. VEPCO, the court shed some light on the role of Virginia’s State Corporation Commission in developing an effective and efficient system for energy production and distribution. First, before new lines of that size can be constructed, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) must find that they are needed to avoid regulatory violations. Second, regardless of federal approval, because the proposed placement of the lines was in Virginia, approval must be obtained from the State Corporation Commission, to whom regulatory authority has been delegated by the Virginia legislature.
The plaintiffs argued, and the court acknowledged, that the federal approval process heavily favors new transmission line construction over other possible solutions such as demand-side regulation, new power generation, and conservation efforts. The Commission, on the other hand, is required by the Commonwealth to consider the viability of these other possible solutions. Therefore, the plaintiffs claimed, the Commission’s reliance on the NERC’s findings was flawed because the federal process is biased against alternative solutions. The plaintiffs demanded that the Commission independently investigate alternative solutions and require them to be incorporated into their interstate operations.
The Virginia Supreme Court, while agreeing with the plaintiffs in spirit, affirmed the SCC’s approval. Justice Koontz noted that the Commission’s duty to independently investigate all applications for new transmission line construction does not prevent the Commission from considering data that may be biased by a federal regulatory process that seeks different goals. Further, the Court held that even if alternative solutions were feasible, a state regulatory agency lacks the authority to require that action be taken on an interstate scale. Finally, the Court held that the Commission’s role is not to dictate interstate policy but to determine if a proposal will serve the anticipated needs of Virginia residents. The Commission’s decision was upheld because it critically reviewed all arguments and data, and its decision was reasonably based on the facts and current law.