WIRES: President Obama must renew focus on transmission

WIRES, the national non-profit electric transmission trade association, urged President Obama to renew his focus on infrastructure issues with a particular focus on America’s high-voltage electric transmission system. 

Although the election highlighted a number of philosophical differences, the need to reinvest in the nation’s infrastructure knows no political affiliation, Jolly Hayden, WIRES president, told TransmissionHub Nov. 7.

“With the aging U.S. electric transmission system in need of upgrade and expansion to meet the demands of a 21st century economy, we now have the opportunity to promote the policies and regulatory processes that will ensure a resilient grid and a strong energy future,” Hayden said, noting that WIRES has pledged to work alongside the Obama administration to help meet the nation’s rapidly growing infrastructure needs.

The WIRES organization expects the Rapid Response Team for Transmission (RRTT), created in 2009 by the Obama administration, to continue coordinating among various federal agencies for the permitting of seven “fast-track” transmission projects.

While acknowledging that the RRTT has a relatively narrow focus, Hayden expects the team to continue its activities during the next Obama administration. “We want it to be successful and we pray the progress continues,” he said.

The Susquehana-Roseland project, a fast-track project that has been permitted under the RRTT, is an example of that success.

“If you’re the sponsor of the Susquehana-Roseland project suffering through the National Park Service’s permitting process, you would count this as a victory,” Jim Hoecker, WIRES counsel and former FERC chairman, told TransmissionHub Nov. 7.

Nonetheless, Hoecker noted that getting transmission built will continue to be a challenging endeavor.

“When it comes to planning, permitting, and constructing transmission, there are no silver bullets,” he added. :It’s a heavily regulated industry and I think everyone recognizes that’s not going to change.”

While supportive of the RRTT and its mission, Hoecker would like to see a broader, more all-encompassing approach to transmission siting.

“In addition to trying to help some of these individual projects through specific agencies and statutes like NEPA, we need to focus on more structural reform as to how we modernize the grid,” he said. “That may mean raising our eyes from the rapid response team type of mechanism to something more generic and that’s something I think we all need to think about.”

WIRES takes the position that investing in repairing, upgrading, and expanding the electric transmission grid is in everyone’s interest.

“It can create jobs, improve electric reliability, promote competitive markets and fuel diversity, and support economic growth,” Hoecker said. “It should be a national priority to facilitate private transmission investment in critically important strategic assets like our interstate electric grid.” 

Looming on the horizon, however, is the larger economic issue of the “fiscal cliff,” an issue Hayden suggested should be a top priority for the new Congress.

“What are our friends on the Hill going to do to attempt to address this issue?” Hayden asked. “If we go over that cliff, it’s not just our business that’s going to be affected, our whole way of life is going to be impacted.”

Such issues add a significant element of uncertainty to any kind of investment, whether infrastructure or otherwise.

“We’ve all heard and acknowledged that there is a lot of cash sitting on the sidelines that could be invested in growing this economy and these sorts of potential threats of a recurring recession are death to investments,” Hoecker said. “We’ve got to get past this before we’re going to see what the real potential of this economy to recover is going to be.”