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Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Jon Wellinghoff wants his agency to have a lot more authority over planning cross-state transmission lines, as well as getting states and utilities to share the costs of building them. But on Monday, the utility industry pushed back. The Coalition for […]

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Jon Wellinghoff wants his agency to have a lot more authority over planning cross-state transmission lines, as well as getting states and utilities to share the costs of building them. But on Monday, the utility industry pushed back. The Coalition for Fair Transmission Policy — an industry group made up of 10 big utilities including Southern Co., Consolidated Edison, Alliant, DTE Energy, PPL, Progress Energy and PSEG — says it will lobby to change proposed Senate legislation that it says could unfairly spread the costs of building big new transmission lines across multiple states. Or, to put it another way, “states and regions that get the benefits of new transmission should be the ones to pay for them,” Bruce Edelston, the coalition’s executive director, said Monday.

The coalition has a specific target —Senate Bill 1462, otherwise known as the American Clean Leadership Act. It wants to take out language from the bill that would give FERC more authority over transmission lines, and replace it with language that “precludes the allocation of transmission expansion costs to electric consumers unless there are measurable economic or reliability benefits for those consumers.”

Wellinghoff has said his agency needs more power to force states to agree on new ways to share the costs of massive new transmission lines to carry clean power from the places it’s most cheaply produced to where it’s most needed. Without it, he told a Senate panel in March, “it is unlikely that the Nation will be able to achieve energy security and economic stability.”

But FERC having more power could involve, for example, a transmission line from a North Dakota wind farm to Illinois’ Chicago suburbs, which might cross three states along its route. How should those “middle mile” states, which have to give up land and cover some costs of maintaining those lines, but may not receive power, be given a piece of the action? In Edelston’s view, the costs and benefits of such undertakings should be shared equally among all regions that have to give something up to let them happen. If a project can’t pay for itself while providing some financial benefit to utility customers in each of those states, it shouldn’t get built, he said.

President Barack Obama has called for 3,000 miles of new transmission lines to be built to help the country double its renewable energy use by 2012. Estimates on the costs of this new interstate energy highway system range from $100 billion to $200 billion, Edelston said — and those costs may be underestimated. A consortium of Eastern power grid operators said last year that transmission to carry wind power from the Midwest to the East could cost $80 billion over the next 15 years or so.

Wellinghoff has said that with such scale of the transmission lines needed, it might be hard to move quickly through the complicated, state-by-state siting and permitting mechanisms now in place — and that’s not to mention the universal opposition to having high-voltage power lines running through your backyard or environmentally sensitive region. For a sampling of the barriers to new transmission lines even within one state’s boundaries, look to California, where one big transmission line in the Central Valley was canceled in the face of local landowner and environmental opposition, and another in San Diego and Imperial counties is being challenged in court.

But Edelston pointed out that transmission projects are still moving forward under business-as-usual conditions, and several projects are underway by “Green Power Express” developer ITC for example. Other private efforts are underway, such as the Tres Amigas project that would connect the nation’s three mega-grid systems in the East, West and in Texas. Transmission projects take years to plan, permit and build, however, making long-range financing a challenge.

Not all utilities are against FERC’s sought-after expanded authority. American Electric Power, which serves 11 states, urged a Senate panel in March to expand federal authority over new transmission lines, including more broad cost-sharing, saying the economic benefits will outweigh the costs. FERC has already signed a MOU with EPA and the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy and the Interior to work together on siting and permitting new transmission lines on federal lands, but that doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of states and their utilities arguing over costs and benefits.

For companies making next-generation transmission equipment such as HVDC and superconducting wire and cable — not to mention developers of utility-scale renewable power projects in hard-to-reach areas — it’s an important controversy to keep an eye on.

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By Jeff St. John

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