Democrats Criticize Reid’s Transmission Plan

By Published On: March 13, 2009

As Congress takes up legislation to speed the permitting of transmission lines that can bring remote renewable energy supplies into cities in California and across the nation, state utility commissioners and some Democratic senators are raising concerns. Objections to giving the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission greater power over transmission siting surfaced as the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee took up legislation backed by the Democratic leadership March 12. “The bill starts a massive national planning effort,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) who wants the federal government to accelerate transmission line construction. To do that, he explained, his legislation would give FERC authority over projects developed under the national plan. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) said based on his experience with liquefied natural gas siting, he would oppose transmission legislation that gives the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission “final authority” over new power lines. He called FERC’s process for siting liquefied natural gas terminals “dysfunctional.” Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) voiced fear the legislation might disrupt the Northwest’s existing transmission planning and siting process conducted under the Bonneville Power Authority. She said the program has been successful at tying wind and other renewable energy projects into the region’s grid. The legislation outlines a process for bringing renewable energy to market. First the federal government would designate renewable energy zones. Then, FERC would seek to convene regional planning organizations to plan transmission lines to interconnect to those areas. If regional planning organizations did not come forward, federal regulators would develop transmission plans in those areas itself. After the regional plans were developed, FERC would become the primary licensing authority for new transmission facilities and take the lead on environmental reviews. All lines rated at 345 kV or higher would need a FERC license. Once the federal commission issued a license, the licensee could gain control of property needed to build a line through imminent domain. Finally, under the legislation, FERC would be able to allocate the cost of new lines among the utilities and customers within regional planning areas. The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners remains opposed to federal preemption, Tony Clark, association second vice president told the committee. Because states are closer to the local communities through which transmission lines run, Clark said, they generally are better able to balance competing interests than Washington. However, acting commission chair Jon Wellinghoff defended giving the federal commission greater authority over transmission siting. “We need a national policy commitment,” he told the committee, urging lawmakers to model transmission legislation after the current natural gas pipeline siting process. Reid agreed with Wellinghoff. “During the last 10 years, we’ve developed 6,000 miles of natural gas pipelines and just 600 miles of new transmission lines.” The utility commissioners agreed transmission lines are needed to advance renewable energy. In advance of the hearing, however, the association called for bounds on any new FERC role. Specifically, the association said FERC should play only a “backstop” role and that it should not be able to license any line that has not been coordinated with states. In addition, the association urged limits on FERC’s authority to allocate costs and said the commission should not have authority over intrastate lines or bundled retail transmission services. Finally, the association opposed any federal preemption of state authority over ratemaking, mitigating environmental impacts, interconnecting to distribution systems, and siting new generating facilities connected to transmission lines. The provisions to hand FERC these increased powers are outlined in two draft bills the panel is considering. Reid drafted one of the bills and committee chair Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) the other. The committee’s goal is to come up with a unified measure.

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