Commitment to Frontier Line Political, Not Economic

By Published On: April 21, 2006

A year after Western state governors signed a memorandum of understanding to build a massive new trans- mission line from Wyoming to California, they finally sat down to discuss how to move forward with the Frontier Line. While a joint statement by several governors issued April 17 notes that the transmission line would bring in more renewable and advanced coal technologies, neither plan nor budget details were provided. “It’s the governors’ political vision. They’re sending a signal to the market,” said Jim Sims, president of the firm Policy Communications. Sims held a conference on transmission this week in Southern California on behalf of the Transmission Development Association. The meeting discussed the Frontier Line and other transmission projects that could geographically unite distant power plant projects with urban load centers. The transmission proposal reveals a policy split between investments in more localized power generation and in lines hooked into massive central-station plants far from those who consume the energy. Utilities, including California’s three investor-owned ones, are committed to investing, according to Sims. A California Energy Commission committee is studying cost-allocation models for big transmission line projects with an initial $250,000, he added. However, at least one utility and one state were quick to distance themselves from any true commitment. CEC chair Joe Desmond told Circuit that there will be no state money involved. The recent agreement on the Frontier Line is “not a commitment to build the line,” only a commitment to conduct a study, Desmond said. Sierra Pacific noted that it is not backing the line, just backing the study as a part of multiple future options. The primary project, the Frontier Line, would carry 12,000 MW from the Rockies to California. Half of that energy is supposed to be from renewable sources or “clean coal” technologies (Circuit, April 8, 2005). Frontier is just one part of a larger transmission plan. It comes out of the Rocky Mountain Area Transmission Study, which proposes two to five possible 500 kV transmission lines to span the Rockies to the West Coast, Nevada, and Arizona markets. Economic models show a wide discrepancy in power costs between Wyoming and California, with the latter being much higher. Planners concluded that linking the two states with transmission lines could bring lower-cost electricity generated across the Rocky Mountain region to California. Originally, the cost was pegged at $12 billion, according to Jon Wellinghoff, an attorney with Beckley Singleton and a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission member candidate. According to Sims, it is now between $5 billion and $7 billion. Wellinghoff thinks that money could be better spent on regional projects and warns of the stranded investment risks with the big projects. “What it comes down to is regional integrated resource planning,” Wellinghoff told Circuit. “No one’s done that.” Pacific Gas & Electric, San Diego Gas & Electric, and Southern California Edison, as well as Sierra Pacific, Nevada Power, and PacifiCorp, are part of the transmission planning partnership. Assuming that the line taps into coal resources, the fossil fuel would be subject to California’s greenhouse gas standards set forth in the joint agency Integrated Energy Policy Report, according to Desmond. The report – which is supposed to be the policy base for the state – maintains that coal-fired power cannot produce more CO2 per megawatt-hour than a new combined-cycle gas plant. Specifics of the greenhouse gas limits are being developed in legislation, SB 1358 by Senate president pro tem Don Perata (D-Oakland).

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