Vote Solar Initiative policy director: Insufficient coordination among West’s balancing authorities

There is insufficient coordination among the balancing authorities in the West to look across the entire region, according to Jim Baak, director of policy, utility-scale solar, with the Vote Solar Initiative.

“There’s a wide variety of structures for approving transmission across the West, so you’ve got a lot of state commissions that are involved in the planning process and it’s a typically very long process,” he said, noting that the timeframe from when a plan is created to when a line is in service may take seven to 10 years.

Typically, the process is focused on either the individual utility balancing areas or the state through their transmission or integrated resource planning, he said during his presentation in TransmissionHub’s webinar with WIRES, “Reshaping the Western Grid: Compliance with FERC Order No. 1000 in the West.”

“The focus is much less regional, so they’re looking at what’s necessary and what can benefit either the individual utility’s needs or the state’s needs via the state utility commission,” he said. “There’s a limited authority to really turn some of these plans into projects, so there’s a lot of planning that goes on, but there’s no centralized authority that says, ‘You will build this project.’ It’s really all on a project-by-project basis and the stakeholder participation is typically quite limited and usually comes at the back-end of the process.”

The exception to that is the regional transmission expansion planning (RTEP) program, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and managed by the Western Electricity Coordinating Council (WECC) and its transmission expansion planning policy committee (TEPPC). “It seeks to improve the regional coordination for transmission planning,” he added, noting that it also adds a longer-term planning process.

“With the RTEP process, WECC has been building a long-term planning tool, the capital expansion tool, that looks at a scenario-based transmission planning,” he said.

One of the unique aspects about that is the creation of an environmental data task force, Baak said, noting that the data will be used at high-level screening for transmission to identify what are the potential risks and costs of building transmission through certain areas.

He noted there is a question as to how the RTEP program intersects with FERC Order 1000 planning, noting that “you’ve got essentially the same entities [in the regions] that are doing” the planning.

“This is really left to the regional entities to decide how they’re going to do these regional and interregional plans, so I don’t see, at this point, a real formal role for RTEP,” he said, adding, “[W]e can develop plans at the WECC level, but it’s really up to the individual regions and the state commissions to decide if they want to put any of those plans into effect, so there’s really no enforcement for building this transmission.”

On how RTEP can guide the Order 1000 planning process, he suggested that the RTEP and TEPPC process could provide data, assumptions and scenarios to be used as the basis for the regional and interregional plans. “[W]e may need some direction from FERC to the regions to that effect so that we can ensure that any plans that are developed by the regions do include this set of data and that that data is already vetted by the stakeholder group,” he said.

Among other things, Baak said there really are not many opportunities for stakeholders to be engaged within the regional entities’ governance and questions remain about how the input of merchant or independent transmission developers will be considered in the regional plans and what role they might have in the regions’ governance.

Stakeholder and utility commission participation in the regions is needed in order for Order 1000 to be effective, he said.

“[T]he transmission planners, the transmission engineers, do a really good job at the technical part of planning the grid, but it’s not really their role to do a lot of the policy and determine which policies are going to be in place in 10 or 20 years,” he said. “I think there needs to be a role for the commissions and other stakeholders to really guide that policy.”

About Corina Rivera-Linares 3286 Articles
Corina Rivera-Linares was TransmissionHub’s chief editor until August 2021, as well as part of the team that established TransmissionHub in 2011. Before joining TransmissionHub, Corina covered renewable energy and environmental issues, as well as transmission, generation, regulation, legislation and ISO/RTO matters at SNL Financial from 2005 to 2011. She has also covered such topics as health, politics, and education for weekly newspapers and national magazines.