Western governors report acknowledges lack of transmission impedes renewable development

The 108-page “State of Energy in the West” report issued by the Western Governors Association June 28 repeatedly cited the lack of transmission capacity and the difficulties of developing new transmission as impediments to the development and incorporation of new sources of energy but stopped short of making concrete recommendations about how to correct those shortfalls.

Created to inform the development and implementation of the group’s 10-Year Energy Vision, the report provides an account of energy resources and issues in the West.

In four pages dedicated to electricity transmission, the report made numerous statements about the benefits of transmission and the need for additional transmission to connect what it called “abundant” new projects for gas and renewable generation, as well as other benefits of a robust transmission system.

“Transmission lines facilitate the efficient exchange of energy between regions, taking advantage of daily and seasonal diversities,” WGA said in the report. “This reduces the amount of new power plants that need to be built and helps keep rates low.”

However, the report also highlighted the difficulty of siting transmission projects, and made reference to a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, which indicated that the majority of the 17,000 miles of high voltage transmission lines currently planned at the national level may not be completed due to permitting obstacles.

The governors’ report also made reference to the consequences of those impediments to the addition of new transmission.

“The current lack of transmission hinders the ability to move the generation to load centers, which in turn hinders construction and increases costs to consumers. It also results in a more vulnerable, less flexible and resilient grid,” WGA said.

The association also noted that the best wind energy is located in “isolated expanses of Western prairie land,” which presents difficulties in connecting to the grid.

Those difficulties are largely political and include the process of obtaining construction permits for new transmission lines that cross federal lands and areas designated sensitive habitats under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). These lands thus can fall under federal permitting jurisdiction, WGA said.

“Given that the Act empowers the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations (NOAA) to designate any area of United States as critical habitat or potentially critical habitat … the federal government can exercise ultimate authority over development on state lands,” WGA said.

The report referred to the Obama Administration’s Rapid Response Team for Transmission and its mission to streamline the transmission approval process, but noted that the pilot project has only chosen a handful of lines to be expedited through processing.

While the report restated the governors’ belief in the value of planning transmission on an interconnection-wide basis, and highlighted the Western Governors’ creation of the State-Provincial Steering Committee as a contribution to meeting that goal, it warned of the possibility that FERC Order 1000 could conceivably short-circuit such an effort.

“Under a strict interpretation of Order 1000, there would not be a single entity looking at the entire Western Interconnection as a whole, causing an inefficient fragmentation of planning activities,” the report said. “The fragmentation would make it more difficult to evaluate long-distance transmission projects that cross the footprints of the current regional planning groups.”

The State of Energy in the West report cited a June 2012 report to the governors that named several key concepts to improve transmission, including improved coordination among state, local and federal agencies; robust outreach prior to formal permit applications; and collaborative planning processes.

Beyond those recommendations, proffered solutions were more vague, and included calls for “collaboration among decision makers at all levels of government,” “meaningful cooperation between state and federal authorities,” and a “federal permitting process for transmission [that] must become more efficient.” How it proposed to accomplish those objectives went unsaid.

Whatever details may have been omitted, the report was clear about the urgency of finding workable solutions.

“Given that the majority of Western states have renewable portfolio standards in place that mandate a greater contribution of renewable energy as a share of state energy demand in the near future, the need for new transmission lines is clear,” WGA said. “Upgrading and building new transmission and pipeline infrastructure is the critical element for enabling the development of remote energy sources throughout the West and ensuring a reliable source of electricity.”