Senate Panel Calls for Open Transmission Planning

By Published On: August 1, 2008

Federal agencies must provide greater transparency and public input in planning and siting new transmission projects to avoid undermining the 2005 Energy Policy Act’s goals to improve the reliability of the nation’s grid, federal lawmakers said July 31. Members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee criticized the U.S. Department of Energy’s designation of transmission corridors in the Southwest and mid-Atlantic as over-reaching and impinging on state and local authority. The Southwest corridor includes Southern California–from Los Angeles to Imperial counties–and the southwest corner of Arizona. The wide, DOE-designated corridors are to alleviate transmission congestion in constrained areas, said Kevin Kolevar, DOE’s assistant secretary for electricity reliability. “If we had only put corridors over the most congested areas of the country there would have been no solutions to the problem,” he said. The nation’s transmission system has grown only 12 percent in the last 20 years, lagging sorely behind a population growth and surging energy demand, Kolevar stressed. As demand for low carbon electricity grows much of the nation’s future energy resources will be developed away from existing transmission lines. Geothermal, wind, and solar renewable energy resources are remotely located, as carbon sequestration projects and new nuclear plants also are expected to be, he said. Moreover, wider transmission corridors will ensure the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rather than the DOE can exercise its backstop authority for siting new transmission lines. Committee Chair Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) questioned the DOE’s plan to adopt a programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for the Southwest energy corridor by the end of the year that would exempt new transmission projects from environmental review. FERC chair Joseph Kelliher noted that transmission accounts for only 7 cents per dollar of electricity. “It’s a small price to pay because if you improve transmission you increase access to lower cost power, improve reliability, and address climate change.” FERC has received more applications for new transmission projects in the three years since the Energy Policy Act was adopted than in the past 25 years. However, the nation’s electricity grid remains critically below the level of investment needed to ensure a reliable power supply, Kelliher stressed State regulators called for greater transparency and forward thinking in the DOE’s transmission congestion studies. The DOE should consider future transmission projects rather than focusing solely on existing congestion, said Marsha Smith of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. “The importance of transmission is not where we have been but where we are going,” she said. States believe that FERC should only exercise its backstop authority over transmission siting when states fail to act. Moreover, states should be given more time if federal land agencies have prevented them from acting on transmission projects on federal lands, said Smith, who chairs the Idaho Public Utilities Commission. Federal land use agencies need to participate with state associations and wind industry groups in identifying the best locations for developing wind farms that invariably will cross federal lands in western states, Smith said. Public power interests urged Congress to support federal backstop authority for both FERC and the DOE to counter local and state opposition to siting new transmission lines. Investor-owned utilities are being over-used for new transmission and higher power prices have dissuaded regional transmission authorities from providing transmission, said Colin Whitley of the American Public Power Association, representing over 200 member agencies. Industry groups argued that the DOE is not equipped to design regional transmission grids which need to be planned in an open and transparent process with regard to location and cost allocation as FERC established in its Order 890.

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