Transmission refers to high voltage lines that bring power from generators to substations. From there, the power is stepped down in voltage and distributed to end use customers. Transmission lines usually run in dedicated rights of way and not along public roads.
From time to time, Maine utilities seek permission from the Maine Commission to build high voltage transmission lines. The question to be answered in such cases is whether the lines are "needed". Need usually means that without the line, customers would be exposed to blackouts at certain times of the year. In the some cases, the need is more difficult to quantify, since it is associated with renewable energy (like a wind farm) that would seek to sell to customers throughout New England. In such cases, the need element is usually satisfied by a showing that the generator has all necessary permits and will be built. In such a case, the generator could not deliver power to customers without the transmission line.
By statute, our job in such cases is to represent the "using and consuming" public, i.e. ratepayers as a group. We do not represent the interests of individual ratepayers or their unique concerns. We do, however, understand that transmission lines cause a great deal of upset to many who live near them. Our primary role on behalf of ratepayers is to advocate for the least cost way of providing reliable power. So, we balance cost with reliability. Generally, utilities use existing land rights (easements and fee ownership interests) for new transmission lines. In situations where many individuals live adjacent to these existing utility rights of way, we believe it is appropriate for these rights of way to be used by the utility if they prove the need for the line. It would be much more expensive to require the utility to buy up all the land rights necessary to create a whole new right of way, even though doing so might lessen the impact on those who live next to existing rights of way. Thus, we are very unlikely to become involved in questions about where these lines go.
Individuals may get involved, in several ways. First, people may intervene in the case as a full party. If they do this, they will receive virtually every piece of paper or electronic information filed in the case, including notice of all meetings, technical conferences, hearings and proceedings. In this case, people will have the option to submit substantive testimony about the technical aspects of the proposals, but there is no requirement to do so. Most of the "regular" parties do this through the use of expert witnesses. Short of this, people may request to be an "interested person" in which case you will receive notice of important developments and public hearings. Third, the PUC may hold public witness hearings; in these cases, it is likely that there will be one or more hearings in areas where the proposed line would be built. At these hearings, any person may testify on their views about the case. Finally, people may put their views in writing to the Commission.
A utility seeking permission to build a line must also obtain other permits. For example, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has jurisdiction over the environmental impacts caused by the line. The Public Advocate does not have the authority or expertise to participate in the DEP process.
Electromagnetic Fields (EMFs)
EMFs are electromagnetic fields, and are potentially emitted by anything that conducts electricity (including appliances in your home). Because transmission lines conduct high voltage electricity, they do emit EMFs. There has been much study of the effects of EMFs on humans (including studies of electric line workers), and to date there is no clear connection with human illness. There is, however, a "suggestion" that EMFs may contribute to childhood leukemia. If you live next to an existing line that will be upgraded, it is likely to lessen any current EMFs since the line will be bigger, dissipating the EMFs, and if the poles are higher, the line will be further away from you.
To learn more, recommend that you start with the following websites:
Transmission lines may or may not affect the value of property that abuts the line. We have seen arguments presented on both sides of these questions. In prior cases, the utilities have asserted that a new transmission line built next to a residence does not in fact negatively affect the value. Homeowners, on the other hand, have maintained that it does. The answer to this question likely depends on the unique circumstances of your particular location.
Finally, the utility may obtain permission from the Commission to take property by eminent domain.
What is Eminent Domain?
Eminent domain refers to the power possessed or delegated by the State to acquire private property for public use. Maine law authorizes utilities to acquire land using the power of eminent domain. The law provides for certain limitations to this right, for example a utility may not acquire land that is within 300 feet of an inhabited dwelling.
How does Eminent Domain Work?
There are several ways by which electric utilities can acquire land they need for building new transmission lines. Typically they approach the property owner and offer to buy the land they need. If the owner agrees, the sale takes place. If the owner does not agree, utilities may be able to take or condemn the property under the power of eminent domain. Typically, utilities only need an easement, but sometimes they seek full title.
How must a property owner be compensated for his or her land?
Under both the Maine and the United States' constitutions, the owner of land that is to be acquired must receive "just compensation" for his or her land. Just compensation means the sum of money that a willing buyer would pay a willing seller in a bargained for sale upon the open market. In some cases, the owner is entitled to additional compensation, for example, when only part of a parcel of land is taken, but the taking of that part makes the remaining part less valuable. For example, if a utility installs a large high voltage transmission line on a portion of the property, the landowner would be entitled to compensation for the loss of value of his or her remaining property as a result of the transmission line's presence.
What happens if the landowner and the company cannot agree on the amount of compensation?
If the landowner and the company cannot agree on the amount of compensation, either party may, within 3 years after the taking, petition the County Commissioners to determine the amount of compensation. Either party may appeal the decision of the Commissioners within 30 days to the Superior Court in the county where the property is located. An appeal from the Superior Court may be made to the Maine Supreme Court.
Must the Public Utilities Commission approve the transmission line before a utility may seek eminent domain approval?
Yes, the Public Utilities Commission must approve the transmission line before a utility may obtain land by eminent domain. Typically, the Commission must find that a "public need for the line exists." This determination often includes a finding by the Commission that there is no reasonable alternative that would better serve the public interest in having access to safe, reliable and economic electric energy. A utility must obtain this approval before it seeks eminent domain approval to take land necessary for the location of that line.
Must the Commission approve the location to be taken by eminent domain?
Yes. Once the Commission finds the line is necessary, it must, in a separate proceeding, approve the exact location of the land to be taken. The landowner has the right to participate in such a proceeding and may appeal the decision to the Maine Supreme Court.
How is property transferred by eminent domain?
Once the utility obtains the approval of the Commission to acquire the land by eminent domain, it must file a detailed description of the property and the names of the owners of the property with the county commissioners of the county where the property is located. The commissioners must note the time of the filing and then will order the utility to record the location of the property in the registry of deeds. Once this occurs, the utility takes the rights and may begin construction on the land. The only issue left for the landowner is compensation.
Is a landowner entitled to refuse the utility employees the right to come on his or her land prior to the land being acquired?
Yes. However it might be in the landowner's interest to allow access in order to help the company determine if that particular location is suitable for siting a transmission line.
Can land in a transmission line's right of way be used for other purposes?
When a utility acquires an easement right for a transmission line the owner can continue to use the land as long as the use does not interfere with the safe operation of the line. Golf courses, hiking trails, crop plantings and cattle pastures are examples of such uses. The landowner does not need permission to use the land as long as the use of the land does not interfere with the line.
This fact sheet is for general information purposes and does not constitute legal advice.