Obama-picked projects provide little insight on fast-tracking process

Though widely considered a positive development, the Obama administration’s decision to fast-track permitting for seven transmission projects nevertheless leaves potential project owners with little detail, industry sources said.

Spokespeople for the various projects praised the intent behind the efforts, but acknowledged a lack of certainty around how effective the administration’s efforts would be.

“There’s so much that we don’t know at this point,” said a spokesperson for the Gateway West and the Boardman-Hemingway projects. He added that the selection of the projects came as a surprise to Idaho Power and Rocky Mountain Power, the companies involved in the projects.

“We don’t have any details so I hesitate to speculate on what it means until we know some more,” he said, adding that he hoped the projects do ultimately see faster permitting.

“Fast-tracking” is likely a misnomer, however, and it is doubtful that there will be anything fast about the process, said an industry lawyer and a transmission project manager.

“We’re talking about a continuum here where there’s excessively slow and there’s slow and then there’s moderately slow,” the lawyer said. “It will never be a short process. … It just means they’re going to try to not let [the projects] die on the vine.”

For projects that are not sponsored by utilities the designation as an Obama-chosen project may help attract investors as it adds a layer of support and security that would otherwise not exist, said a source familiar with the Sunzia Southwest Transmission Project.

Sunzia is a 460-mile, 500-kV line sponsored by Salt River Project, UniSource Energy (NYSE:UNS) subsidiary Tucson Electric Power, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Shell Wind Energy and Southwestern Power Group II/MMR Group.

Whether that support turns out to be of great value remains to be seen, the source cautioned. He noted, though, that expedited permitting will translate into lower project costs.

For regulated projects, that means lower costs to ratepayers, the project manager noted.

A potential downside is that government involvement could mean conditions that may not work for the project, the source familiar said. That said, some government support is better than none, he added.

“If you have an indication from the government that they sense the need not to kill something by taking too long, I think that’s an extremely helpful thing,” the lawyer said.

A second industry lawyer echoed the positive sentiment, but expressed concern that the administration was showing favortism.

“I don’t think the federal government has any justification for deciding in advance which projects should be put through the regulatory process,” the second lawyer said.

Though he ceded the projects are “probably great,” he said expedited permitting should be available to other good projects as well.

But the program is a pilot program, the first lawyer and project manager pointed out. Initially, it will help long-distance large-scale projects, but the program may branch beyond that if proven successful, the project manager said.

“I don’t think necessarily these are all the projects that the government is going to try to help expedite, but it has to start somewhere and it has to prioritize its efforts, so it’s sort of the nature of the beast that you’re going to have a limited ability to do everybody at the same time,” the first lawyer said.

The administration was looking for geographical diversity and for projects that were in different stages of development to set in place a process that can be applied to other projects as well, a spokesperson for Portland General Electric (NYSE:POR) claimed. The administration also got feedback from around the country on what were priority projects in different regions of the nation, he said.

Portland General Electric has proposed the approximately 210-mile, 500-kV Cascade Crossing Transmission Project that would go from Boardman to Salem, Ore.

Portland General Electric has already provided a model for the type of efficiency the administration wants to achieve, the spokesperson claimed. The company has had joint scoping meetings and gathered public input for various agencies to hear it at the same time. The company has also put together a joint website where members of the public can get information at this single point of contact.

The project addresses a specific need in the Pacific Northwest, where population centers are on the west side of the mountains while generating opportunities are on the east side, the spokesperson said.

“We’re looking for any opportunity for the existing timeline to get moved up, get us to construction sooner and get jobs [created] faster,” said a spokesperson for TransWest Express. Furthermore, the line will help facilitate cost-effective renewable energy to the southwest market, she said.

TransWest Express and the Western Area Power Administration will fund the development phase of the 700-mile, 600-kV project.

The spokesperson also noted that the project, because it crosses four states, at least 15 counties, and multiple jurisdictions, can serve as a test case for the involvement of agencies like the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.

The other projects are:

  • Boardman-Hemingway, a 300-mile, 500-kV line proposed by IDACORP (NYSE:IDA) subsidiary Idaho Power that would run from a proposed substation near Boardman, Ore., to the Hemingway substation near Melba, Idaho.
  • Gateway West, a 1,150-mile project proposed by Idaho Power and Rocky Mountain Power that would include about 300 miles of 230-kV lines in Wyoming and about 800 miles of 500-kV lines in Wyoming and Idaho. Rocky Mountain Power is a division of PacifiCorp and part of MidAmerican Energy Holdings.
  • Hampton-Rochester-La Crosse, proposed by CapX2020, which includes 125 miles of 345-kV line and 15 to 18 miles of 161-kV line. CapX2020 is a joint initiative of 11 transmission-owning utilities in Minnesota and the surrounding region, including Xcel Energy (NYSE:XEL).
  • Susquehanna-Roseland, a 145-mile, 500-kV line proposed by PPL’s (NYSE:PPL) PPL Electric Utilities and Public Service Enterprise Group (NYSE:PEG) subsidiary Public Service Electric and Gas, would run from the Susquehanna substation in Pennsylvania to the Roseland substation in New Jersey.
About Rosy Lum 525 Articles
Rosy Lum, Analyst for TransmissionHub, has been covering the U.S. energy industry since 2007. She began her career in energy journalism at SNL Financial, for which she established a New York news desk. She covered topics ranging from energy finance and renewable policies and incentives, to master limited partnerships and ETFs. Thereafter, she honed her energy and utility focus at the Financial Times' dealReporter, where she covered and broke oil and gas and utility mergers and acquisitions.