Siting new transmission lines is always a difficult endeavor and it is important to get the public involved in the siting process early on in a meaningful and hands-on way, according to Cameron Yourkowski, senior policy manager with the Renewable Northwest Project (RNP).
“[The] conversation can become much more constructive and the local knowledge base you can tap into there can actually help site the line in the best places with the least total impact,” he said on Sept. 19 during an Americans for a Clean Energy Grid (ACEG) webinar. “[T]he conservations can go from ‘not in my backyard’ and ‘over my dead body’ to something more like, ‘it would be a lot better if you would put the line over here instead, that would have less impact to the land.’”
ACEG said on Sept. 9 that the series of regionally focused webinars on what is going on in the world of transmission will run from this fall to the winter of 2014. The next webinar is scheduled for the week of Sept. 30 and will focus on the Midwest.
ACEG also said that since 2010, it has held seven regional transmission summits where it has heard from a diverse range of individuals who care about the urgent need to modernize, integrate, extend and add capacity to the nation’s high-voltage electric transmission grid.
At some point, depending on where policy issues go, there will be a need for a lot more than distributed generation and energy efficiency. In other words, there will be a need for a lot more clean energy coming out of Montana, he said.
NorthWestern Energy’s proposed Mountain States Transmission Intertie (MSTI) project would carry up to 3,000 MW of wind from Montana into Idaho and then hook up with other major transmission lines, he said, noting that through its siting process, the line ran into several problems. For instance, farmers were worried about the impacts to their businesses from the line, homeowners were worried about the impacts to their viewsheds and environmentalists were worried about impacts to the natural environment in the local area.
Yourkowski said that working with other NGOs, environmental groups and consultants, RNP found a way to facilitate that type of dialogue involving the MSTI project.
The group developed a GIS mapping tool for the MSTI project route as well as questionnaires to learn more about stakeholders’ priorities involving the potential corridors where the line was sited, he said.
According to TransmissionHub data, NorthWestern Energy said on its website that the project has officially been put on hold due to market uncertainty and permitting issues.
Along with siting, another contentious issue on transmission development involves cost allocation, or the question of who should pay for the transmission line, he said.
“In some ways, it’s easy to identify individual beneficiaries of a new transmission line … but it’s not always known in advance who [will be] the ultimate customers and beneficiaries of all of the capacity of a new transmission line,” Yourkowski said.
He also noted that with any transmission project, there is going to be some degree of social benefit, either by improving the system’s reliability or by bringing in resources to the grid that are better for the environment.
Yourkowski said FERC is looking into these matters through its Order 1000, which involves transmission planning and cost allocation.
“It requires utilities to plan transmission collectively … and to identify who the beneficiaries are and to allocate those costs of new transmission to those beneficiaries in a … [manner] so that anyone [who] is going to benefit is going to participate at least a little bit in paying for the cost of these transmission lines,” he said, adding, “[H]opefully, that will move the issue forward and actually get some of these important transmission lines built.”
Need for diverse resources
One project that does not have any difficult siting issues is the Montana-to-Washington transmission system upgrade project, Yourkowski said.
According to an Aug. 23 project fact sheet posted on the Bonneville Power Administration’s (BPA) website, BPA is proposing to upgrade parts of its existing transmission system in Montana, Idaho and Washington, with the purpose being to increase available transmission capacity from BPA’s Garrison substation in western Montana to power markets west of the Cascades that serve the entire Northwest.
The proposed upgrades consist of reinforcements to several existing BPA substations; the construction of a new substation along existing transmission lines between St. Regis and Missoula, Mont.; and the reconductor of 12 miles of the Dworshak-Taft No. 1 500-kV line in Montana and Idaho. Reinforcements would occur at the Garrison and Hot Springs substations in Montana, the Dworshak and Hatwai substations in Idaho and Bell substation in Washington, BPA added.
The Northwest region is struggling with the concept of renewable energy resource diversity, Yourkowski said.
Most of all of the operating wind farms in the Northwest are located in the Columbia River Gorge Area along the Washington-Oregon border, meaning that all of the wind tends to ramp up and start generating at the same time, and that requires more balancing reserves, he said.
Having a more diverse set of renewable energy resources in a portfolio and on the grid means “that if you can spread some of the wind out geographically [or] more dispersed around the region … it’ll effectively balance itself to a certain degree, free of charge to consumers,” he said.
He added: “The Montana wind tends to blow most in the daytime and in the winter months when the grid needs that power most, so that makes it even more valuable. The problem is that we lack transmission capacity between Montana and the Northwest load centers on the coast, and this lack of transmission capacity is causing economic costs to the customers in the Northwest.”
For instance, customers have to pay more for balancing reserves, he said.
The Montana-to-Washington project would potentially address those issues, at least in the short term, he said.
“This project is a really great example of finding a way to use the existing system more efficiently,” he said. “It requires no new right of way … and it requires minimal new investment, which is good for consumers.”
Also on the webinar, Roger Hamilton, Western Grid Group director, said that maximizing the use of the existing transmission system as well as maximizing energy efficiency and distributed generation on the customer side of the meter are the “first things that the regulatory commissions should look at before they allocate cost recovery” associated with building transmission upgrades.
He noted a need to implement an energy imbalance market, which “has been a struggle in the West.”
He added, “We think that it’s really necessary, again, for public utility commissions to bear down on asking the question if a utility doesn’t implement an energy imbalance market, doesn’t participate in it, that’s money that’s left on the table, those savings that ratepayers are not going to enjoy, that utilities should be held accountable for those losses.”
Hamilton also noted a need to improve weather, wind and solar forecasting as that “reduces imbalances and therefore imbalance costs and integration costs, and increases efficiency.”
Improving the act of predicting when the wind blows and when the sun shines or does not shine on as granular basis as possible might require a lot of investment but would enhance the integration of variable resources, he said.
Among other things, he also called for a need to take advantage of the geographic diversity of resources and to improve reserve management.