State Regulators Study Transmission Needs, New Options Highlighted

By Published On: July 27, 2021

California’s goal to acquire massive amounts of new wind, solar, and storage won’t be reached if the transmission needed to deliver it is not built, policymakers, developers, and analysts stressed at a July 22 Joint Agency workshop.

To make its SB 100 clean energy mandate, solar and wind resources need to be tripled annually and eight times as much storage must be added every year. The state must go from 22 GW of required portfolio qualifying renewables in 2019 to roughly 48 GW in 2030, and keep up that same pace through 2045, according to the California Energy Commission’s SB 100 report.

While the pace of new resource growth is accelerating the pace of transmission development is not, Neil Millar, California Independent System Operator (CAISO) vice president of infrastructure and operations planning, said during the workshop late last week.

Workshop participants offered solutions to the planning, siting, and financing of new transmission needed.

Workshop presentations called for immediate acceleration of in-state and out-of-state transmission development to connect with renewables across the West to meet mid-2020 goals. By the end of this decade, a bigger vision for transmission of California’s abundant, untapped offshore wind resource should be considered, participants added.


Preliminary research shows the most cost-effective approach with the least-impact to meeting SB 100 goals would be to coordinate in- and out-of-state resources, The Nature Conservancy California Energy Strategy Director Erica Brand said during the workshop.

Balancing Authorities in the Western Interconnection could help resolve financing challenges, said Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) Senior Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer Jennifer Rodgers. Interconnecting into the 15-state WAPA territory gives California transmission developers access to the federal low interest Transmission Infrastructure Program, she pointed out.

Collaboration with other public power entities also can allow access to other sources of low-cost financing, added California Municipal Utilities Association Counsel Tony Braun and representatives for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and Imperial Irrigation District (IID).

But resource development that shifts ratepayer costs and land uses to other states to protect California land limits indirect benefits like jobs and tax revenues to Californians, regulators warned.

New financing strategies are valuable, CEC Commissioner Karen Douglas said. An added benefit of transmission for IID geothermal development is the acceleration of access to its unique, lithium-rich geothermal brine that may be the basis of a California electric vehicle battery-making industry.

Regional collaboration will be invaluable because “time is not on our side,” added LADWP’s Director of Regulatory Compliance and Specifications Simon Zewdu. LA will require “unprecedented” new transmission to meet its 100% renewables goal by 2045.

Potential transmission gateways

Developers presented ten transmission project approaches to in-state and out-of-state transmission for delivering more wind and solar to the CAISO system. New 345 kV and 500 kV DC and AC lines are in the pipeline to bring thousands of megawatts by the mid-2020s to help meet the CPUC’s recent order for 11.5 GW of new renewable capacity by 2026, they said.

The California offshore opportunity

The potential for a north-south transmission backbone line for California’s recently green-lighted central coast offshore wind also is important, said Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewables Technology Executive Director V. John White and Pierce Atwood energy law partner James Avery.

The Morro Bay and Diablo Canyon lease areas in federal waters, with the potential to deliver up 3 GW of offshore wind energy, will be auctioned in 2022. A backbone transmission system along the coast, which could take several years to build, can interconnect with coastal infrastructure, and deliver power to Southern California urban areas, Avery and White said.

By using a coastal approach, abundant renewables generation could be delivered without traversing densely populated inland areas as would be needed by out-of-state generation.

In addition, it would repurpose existing transmission infrastructure now serving generation scheduled for closure by 2025, White said. That would reduce the cost of potential stranded assets associated with the Diablo Canyon nuclear facility and the natural gas plants using ocean water for cooling, White added.

An existing precedent would allow approval and development of a backbone system even before the offshore wind projects are finalized, he told Current. A CPUC convened 2004 study group led to the 2009 approval of the Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project trunk line to Los Angeles built by Southern California Edison ahead of the massive expansion of solar and wind generation from the Tehachapi Mountains and Antelope Valley.

The joint agencies represented at the workshop could authorize a new study group made up of today’s relevant stakeholders, White said. Transmission developers’ responses to a solicitation from that study group would show if the concept of backbone transmission for offshore wind along California’s central coast is feasible and affordable.

A backbone offshore transmission system is an important option to study, Magellan Wind CEO Jim Lanard told Current. But “East Coast offshore wind developers are still wary of relying on independently built transmission systems and backbones because of the failure some years ago of German government-funded offshore wind transmission that was not completed on time,” he said.

If transmission is not in place when wind projects are ready to go online, the delay can keep developers from meeting contractual and financial obligations and cost them billions of dollars, Lanard added. If approved, a backbone project for California should include liability protections, like financial compensation, for developers, he said.

Waiting for the starting gun

But development of a project like that “is likely to be a 10-year process, and regulators have not yet fired the starting gun,” Lanard said.

California needs to invest in new transmission, but offshore wind transmission will not be able to be a part until regulators reconsider the planning process, American Clean Power California Offshore Wind Program Director Molly Croll noted. It should be given more significance in the CPUC’s Integrated Resource Planning process to allow it to be part of the reliability and policy base case for future transmission planning.

The resource mix identified by the CPUC’s IRP process will inform the CAISO 2021-2022 transmission planning process that will select the next projects to be built. A new 20 Year Transmission Outlook being developed by CAISO will integrate the CPUC IRP, the CEC Integrated Energy Policy Report, and the 2020-2021 TPP to formulate longer-term objectives.

Regulators must act soon because inaction will have a cost, American Clean Power California Counsel Brian Biering reminded workshop participants.

–Herman K. Trabish

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