Transmission Corridors Up for Next Integrated Energy Plan

By Published On: May 8, 2009

Environmentalists, industry, and the grid operators (both municipal and the California Independent System Operator) came close to agreeing that the state should set aside “corridors” for major transmission lines to strike a balance between land use and increased reliance on renewable energy. “It’s preserving and building California,” Karen Edson, CAISO vice president, external affairs, told the California Energy Commission May 4 meeting on the commission’s Integrated Energy Policy Report. She said that by designating corridors for future transmission lines instead of allowing land to be developed for other purposes, “everybody has the expectation that one day [a transmission line] will be there.” The Integrated Energy Policy Report is supposed to be the basic guide for state legislators and administrators to develop energy policy. This part of the guideline is aimed at the 2009 Strategic Transmission Investment Plan. In a new, somewhat tentative, alliance, environmentalists agreed. Faced with the choice of more renewable energy from concentrated sources--like wind power from the Tehachapi mountains and solar from the Mojave desert--versus the land use dilemma of siting transmission lines in environmentally sensitive areas, some major environmental groups are choosing to support transmission for renewables. “Use the corridors we have,” rather than venturing into areas without current transmission facilities, suggested Carl Zichella, Sierra Club western renewables project director. He also promoted putting lines underground whenever possible to lessen landscape impacts. Building billion dollar transmission lines could bring in renewable sources of energy to urban load centers. For instance, the Sunrise Powerlink hosted by San Diego Gas & Electric is estimated to cost about $2 billion to transport power from the desert to San Diego. The lines represent the potential for the state to meet its current goal of delivering 20 percent of utilities’ power from renewable sources. The down side of new lines is that they are big, arguably ugly, and impact the environment. “Anyone who’s building a transmission line is going to claim that it’s necessary for moving renewable energy--that’s the sexy line,” Rich Ferguson, Center for Energy Efficiency & Renewable Technologies research director. Ferguson also chairs the state’s renewable energy transmission initiative project. California isn’t the only entity with designs on designating corridors for building new transmission lines for renewable power. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission directed that incentives for “green” transmission be allowed April 13. Congress is considering new transmission policies that could ease transmission line development for what it considers “green” power. The definitions of green power vary, however. Also under early consideration is a national transmission initiative that would make the state’s renewable energy transmission initiative “useless,” according to Ferguson. Another aspect of easing transmission projects--and their attendant renewable power developments--is financing. The dilemma, noted witnesses at the meeting this week, is that there should be assurance that a line would be built in order for a renewable power developer to get financing for the project that the line is supposed to deliver. Thus, the line could be built using financing backed by ratepayers, but the renewables development might not come to fruition due to doubts that the line would be completed. “Does this planning provide sufficient certainty for the amount of capital we have to attract?” questioned Nancy Ryan, California Public Utilities Commission deputy director. Financing for new transmission lines themselves appears settled on region-wide payment. Formerly, a utility would spread the cost of a new line only among ratepayers in its own territory. With indication from national regulators as well as the state, the cost of new lines that service the populace in general may be spread on a regional basis. At the Integrated Energy Policy Report hearing, environmentalists appear to support the region-wide payment system.

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