Beneath the Push for a National Grid, Eminent Domain Battle Brews

Siting is a thorny issue for any major infrastructure project — after all, who wants a freeway in their backyard? For the pending transmission grid buildout, the challenge could be even greater because of a key difference between the Interstate Highway System that President Eisenhower championed a half-century ago and the thousands of miles of transmission lines proposed to connect abundant renewable energy resources in rural regions with urban centers: It’s all about exits.

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Highways have on- and off-ramps, and so towns along the route can see some of the benefit. High-voltage direct-current transmission lines, while efficient for long distances, aren’t designed to drop off electricity along the way — they’re basically no-exit highways, according to Lester Lave, who co-directs Carnegie Mellon’s Electricity Industry Center and testified at a Senate hearing about the renewable portfolio standard this week. (As noted on the Green Inc. blog, it’s possible to add “off ramps,” but it’s very expensive.) As a result, states may not be as willing to seize land for the project as they were for Eisenhower’s interstate, as theĀ New York Times explains.

Spain-based energy giant Iberdrola Renewables’ Don Furman said at the Senate hearing this week (he heads up North American development, policy and regulation for Iberdrola) that laying thousands of miles of new transmission lines to connect regions with abundant wind and solar resources to energy-hungry cities involves all the challenges of constructing the interstate highway system: “NIMBY” resistance to siting, cross-border planning and permitting, and uncertain cost recovery.

Lave countered that, while the grid is undoubtedly “a piece of national infrastructure,” it differs from an interstate highway in who uses it — and therefore who should coordinate and pay for it. Here’s Lave’s thinking: If Wyoming wants to sell wind power to Southern California, let the two states or utility commissions work it out. If T. Boone Pickens wants to bring wind power to the Texas grid, let him install the transmission lines (if you’re Pickens, by the way, that means lobbying the Texas legislature to let y0u annex land). When it comes to building a no-exit transmission line, Lave said, “I don’t see what the justification would be for making that a federal facility.”

To be sure, there are ways to get interstate transmission lines muscled into being despite regional roadblocks. The Department of Energy can designate National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors. Since acquiring this authority in 2005, the department has designated two corridors — one of which covers the entire state of New Jersey. The designation is not carte blanche approval for transmission lines, but it’s the first step in a process that lets the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission permit projects that have been delayed (or denied) at the state level. As a last resort, it can use eminent domain — a controversial process.

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A renewable portfolio standard could grease the wheels for the national grid, giving states without abundant renewable power resources a mandate to tap clean energy from elsewhere — and an incentive to back transmission lines.

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