A power line upgrade proposed by two utility companies runs through southwestern Connecticut.

A rolling stone may gather no moss, but the ball is rolling on a proposed power line upgrade between Middletown and Norwalk and it is gathering both controversy and cost.

The proposed upgrade was initially estimated to cost about $600 million, but a late December report shows that the upgrade could now cost nearly $1 billion. Since the new year, controversy has been building over whether there will be further, costly delays and over who will pay for a portion of the line to be placed underground.

Two Connecticut utility companies, The United Illuminating Co. and Connecticut Light & Power Co., filed for the upgrade in late 2003 with the Connecticut Siting Council, the group that approves power projects. The project would upgrade the outdated 115-kilovolt power lines that stretch through southwestern Connecticut. The lines can no longer efficiently manage the demand for electricity in the region.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has also gotten involved in the project. The commission held the second of two conferences on the subject last week, hoping to ease the process and to avoid a power crisis like California saw in 2001.

“The commission has taken a proactive stance,” said FERC spokesman Bryan Lee. “[We] have serious concerns that Connecticut is on a path to becoming the next California.”

Connecticut hasn’t invested in the southwestern part of the state’s power infrastructure in years, and now the system can’t keep up with the demand for electricity, Lee said. The rest of the state relies on 345-kilovolt power lines, but southwestern Connecticut’s are smaller.

“They’re really on a creaky old 115 kV line,” he said. “The state is dependent on old, inefficient, polluting generation.”

The utility companies have proposed 69 miles of new, 345-kilovolt cable, with 24 miles in the far southwestern corner buried underground. The burying of a section of the cable – it’s a Connecticut state law to bury as much cable as is technically possible – has caused substantial controversy all over New England.

Because New England’s electrical grid system is interconnected, the cost of the project will be split between the states in the region, and the recent increase in the projected cost has caused some rancor over who will pay for what.

The increase in the cost reflects the dollar value now vs. when the last estimate was made and the increase in the costs of materials, said United Illuminating spokeswoman Marcia Wellman. Putting 24 miles of the cable underground has also increased the cost, because ISO New England, which operates the regional grid, is requiring that the local utility companies use a more expensive kind of cable for that portion, according to Wellman.

Evaluating Costs

The new $1 billion price tag has caused some animosity among lawmakers and other concerned parties in the New England states. It is widely accepted that the states will split the basic cost of the upgrade, but some policymakers do not want to pay for the extra cost of placing part of the line underground.

“Don’t ask New Hampshire to pay for preserving the views in Connecticut,” said Michael Harrington, commissioner of the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission.

The underground portion of the line adds substantial cost to the project and is more a quality-of-life issue, according to Harrington.

The underground portion also caused some controversy within Connecticut. Some local lawmakers and residents along the above-ground portion of the line recoiled at the plan because it did not put the entire line underground. But 24 miles is the most that can be placed underground, Wellman said.

“After an unprecedented amount of study Â… we have yet again concluded that 24 miles is the maximum we can put underground,” she said.

Delays in the project have also caused controversy. A two-year delay was part of the nearly 80 percent leap in cost, according to the utility companies. The costs of further delays shouldn’t be borne by all the New England states, Harrington said. The Siting Council originally was going to make a decision by this April, but told attendees of the FERC conference the decision would be made by the end of the year, according to the Associated Press. There is also a chance the issue could end up in court, Harrington said.

“That’s going to cause additional delays,” he said.

After the project is approved and the cost settled, state regulators across New England will decide on the formula to split the costs. That information will go to FERC for approval, and the FERC will have the final say on how the cost is split.

ISO New England told people at the conference that the longer the project is delayed, the higher the costs, according to Lee.

Despite the controversy, the cost of doing nothing would far exceed the cost of the project. Federal officials at the conference cited the need for a stable regional system and said the state needs to act, according to the AP.

Ratepayers will eventually carry the cost of the project. If the project does not move ahead, Connecticut customers’ monthly electric bills would increase by $8.97 because of maintenance required on the existing lines, according to the AP. If the state were to pay for the project by itself, bills would rise about $3.67 per month.

“There are costs to be paid for not doing anything for the last 30 years,” Lee said.

Fairfield County’s demand for electricity goes up about 8 percent a year, he said. Nationally, demand goes up 2 percent to 3 percent per year.

If nothing is done, the southwestern corner of Connecticut will eventually be overwhelmed with demand and have rolling blackouts, according to Lee. An incident like a summer heat wave could trigger it by causing an old power plant in the region to shut down. The reliability issues could likely be contained to the area, but could extend to the New England region, he said.

“The grid is an integrated system,” Lee said.