There are two reasons the 300-mile Boardman-to-Hemingway transmission project is crucial to the energy future of the High Plains and the Pacific Northwest.
First, by connecting to Pacificorp’s massive, still unfinished Energy Gateway transmission system, the 500 kilovolt, alternating current line will deliver energy generated on the High Plains to load centers and lucrative electricity markets in the Pacific Northwest.
Second, it offers greater potential for the connected eastern and western grids to deliver abundant renewables generation to California’s insatiable energy appetite.
“We are trying to interconnect to the Mid-Columbia grid, the Mid-C market,” Idaho Power 500 Kilovolt Projects Manager Doug Dockter told Utility Dive. “The Pacificorp balancing authority is farther south and the transmission is critical for them because they are trying to use it to work their [Energy Imbalance Market] with the California Independent System Operator.”
The regional loads are complimentary, Dockter said. Idaho Power’s demand from air conditioning and agricultural irrigation causes a summer peak. But for much of the rest of the Northwest, demand peaks in the winter due to the need for space heating.
“There is usually extra energy in the Northwest for us in the summer and when they are peaking in the winter, we sell to them,” Dockter said. “With access to the Mid-C market, we could satisfy regional generation needs without building new generation.”
In conjunction with the Energy Gateway and the Energy Imbalance Market, Dockter said, intermittent wind and solar resources can be more reliably interconnected across a greater region.
But, he added, “we first have to get the permits.”
The first complications
Idaho Power began permitting Boardman-to-Hemingway in 2008. Then it ran into complications and stopped. The utility spent a year working with stakeholders along the route, and resumed trying to coordinate state and federal permitting processes in 2010. “We have been going through those ever since,” Dockter said.
Idaho Power is the project lead. The Bonneville Power Administration and Pacificorp, both would-be beneficiaries of the line, are helping fund permitting.
The federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process is led by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM must provide a draft environmental impact study (EIS), then a final EIS, and finally a Record of Decision (ROD). Oregon’s Energy Facility Siting Council (EFSC) is the state-level jurisdiction. The two processes, Dockter said, were not designed to be run together and do not complement each other.
Boardman-to-Hemingway was one of seven projects designated for special attention by the Obama Administration’s Rapid Response Transmission Team (RRTT) in 2009. It was supposed to streamline the process by driving cooperation between the federal permitting agencies.
“The RRTT has given us access to people in Washington, D.C., but it has not been effective for getting permits,” Dockter said. “The RRTT’s purpose was to make sure those nine agencies involved in permitting are working well together. What we are noticing is that the BLM has been ineffective in managing its own process. That is what is hampering [Boardman-to-Hemingway].”
The Bureau of Land Management
The BLM’s organizational structure is ineffective for permitting multi-state transmission, Dockter believes.
“The field offices in each area are responsible for their little chunk of ground. When you pass through multiple field offices, you have to make sure they are willing to coordinate and cooperate," he said. "That is extremely challenging."
Dockter, who has been involved in Boardman-to-Hemingway since 2008, said inconsistent management “has created many issues.” The utility has “gone through five different BLM project managers” since the project started, he added.
While NEPA permitting requires the weighing of multiple alternative routes, Oregon's EFSC is standards-based. “We have to submit the route and prove we can meet 28 different standards to get their site certificate,” Dockter said.
Until the BLM issues its ROD “sometime in 2016,” Dockter explained, the final route is uncertain. BLM’s preliminary analysis provides a “likely” route.
But to advance the process by taking on the rigorous and costly EFSC certification procedures, Idaho Power must guess which proposed segments of the line might endure final BLM scrutiny.
The BLM, for its part, noted that multi-state projects like Boardman-to-Hemingway are naturally complicated.
"The Boardman-to-Hemingway Transmission Line proposal involves working with numerous federal, state, and local agencies across multiple jurisdictions in six counties and two states," BLM National Project Manager Tamara Gertsch told Utility Dive. Nonetheless, the agency remains "on track to release the draft Environmental Impact Statement this fall."
Sage grouses, ground squirrels, and bombs
“The big challenge with the sage grouse is the unknown,” Dockter said. His efforts await the results of a BLM study of Oregon and Idaho sage grouse areas. “We don’t know how it might impact what we are trying to do.”
Oregon’s Sage Grouse Conservation Partnership, or SageCon, is also assessing sage grouse concerns. The unknowns there are even more problematic for Dockter because directives will likely not come until after Boardman-to-Hemingway is permitted.
Observers say Idaho Power and the Department of Defense are moving toward a route for the line along a road to the east of the Navy’s only Pacific Northwest live bombing range, but Dockter said there is no agreement.
Three factors need to be reconciled, he explained. The first is Navy weapons training, the second is the endangered Washington ground squirrel habitat at the edge of the bombing range, and the third is high-value agricultural land across the road from the Navy facility.
Stakeholders seem to have identified a viable corridor that follows a road on the east side of the bombing range. But they have not been able to agree on whether the line should be on the east or west side of the road.
Once again, a final route may not come until after the BLM completes its NEPA analyses. “All the routes in that area are still in play,” Dockter said, “and we are working diligently to decide.”
'Left holding the bag'
In Idaho Power’s most recent Integrated Resource Plan, Dockter said, the two key strategies for advancing load service over the next ten years are the Boardman-to-Hemingway line and demand side management.
“Both of those options are no-carbon resources and, especially with the EPA’s newly proposed 111 (d) requirements, it would be a huge advantage to build [Boardman-to-Hemingway]. But we can’t get this thing permitted,” Dockter said. “We are trying to do what is right. It is almost like there is in-fighting between branches of the government and we are left holding the bag.”
Editor's Note: This is the sixth piece in an ongoing Utility Dive series on new high voltage transmission. Other installments in the series are:
What happened to that national high voltage transmission system? Clean Line and others are still pioneering lines for remote renewables.
Can Warren Buffett's Pacificorp bring the Northwest's renewable riches to market? The Energy Gateway will change the way America uses energy — when it gets finished.
How new transmission will bring Wyoming wind to California: President Obama’s transmission plan aims to bring remote renewables to load centers.
How to build high voltage transmission in America: Projects are struggling with permitting across the country, but PSE&G and PPL got it done.
Is SunZia ready to deliver New Mexico wind to Phoenix and Los Angeles? After years of fighting for permits, SunZia is about to get a green light—or a lawsuit.