Once-bold calls for national high-capacity transmission to harvest abundant but remote U.S. wind, solar, and geothermal resources are now a distant whisper. But some developers are still pioneering upgrades for a fragile, somewhat balkanized electricity delivery system.
“You can’t get enough clean energy from distributed resources,” said former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) chairman and staunch distributed energy resources (DERs) advocate Jon Wellinghoff. “If you run the numbers, you find out we need these clean remote resources and transmission lines to get them to the load.”
When DERs are interconnected to central transmission, the whole system becomes “more robust and more reliable,” Wellinghoff said recently in calling for an independent distribution system operator to streamline DER delivery. “Given the energy requirements of this country, we have to have both.”
Calls for a national high voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission system began with the renewables expansion in 2006. But barriers were quickly identified.
One of the first was that “nobody was in charge,” Wellinghoff said. FERC has authority to site interstate natural gas pipelines but very limited authority to site transmission lines. Local authorities at the state, county, municipal, and even tribal council level become involved. “No one is responsible for figuring out how to get the project done.”
The 157 mile Roseland-Susquehanna line from Pennsylvania to New Jersey was stopped by one national park administrator’s objection to the replacement, on an existing two-mile right-of-way, of a 230 kV line with a 500 kV line, Wellinghoff recalled. Completion was delayed over six years, until $60 million in mitigation funds got the administrator to remit.
In 2006, Wellinghoff proposed to Congress that if local jurisdiction failed, authority should fall to FERC after a year. “But it never went anywhere,” he said.
Clean Line Energy in the heartland
Clean Line Energy Partners (CLEP) is working on five lines “to connect the best resources in the country with load centers that don’t have access to them,” President Michael Skelly explained. “It is a very simple idea. The execution is quite complex. For five years, we have been going at it brick by brick, county by county, landowner by landowner, state by state.”
Funded by National Grid and ZBI Investors, CLEP is developing four HVDC lines and one AC line. “With luck, we will break ground in the next couple of years. The Plains & Eastern (P&E) line to deliver Oklahoma wind to the Southeast is the best candidate.”
Skelly’s team faces landowners, environmental groups, county officials, and state regulators as they work up a preliminary route. “By the time you are done studying possible routes, you have thousands of locations on a map that you want to stay away from.” After public feedback, a “refined route” must be permitted by state regulators.
“A state commission can take over a year to decide if the benefits of the project outweigh the downside,” Skelly said. “Opponents file legal briefs, we respond, and there is a blizzard of paper. But you can’t rush public stakeholders. We are methodical. We work within the constraints of the process.”
CLEP stresses the local benefits of its projects, such as suppliers with factories along their lines’ routes that create jobs. To satisfy landowners, CLEP pays 100% value up front as well as making annual per-power payments. And the team never stops communicating “what we are doing and why it is necessary,” Skelly said. “You can never communicate with enough people but we communicate with as many as we can.”
The best response to local resistance is local support, Skelly said. Randolph County, Mo. Presiding Commissioner Susan Carter emphasized one CLEP project’s property taxes and jobs to state regulators and called for Randolph County “to be a part of America’s clean energy grid.” Cindy O’Laughlin and husband, owners of a Ready Mix concrete and trucking company, publicly championed the P&E line’s jobs. And Vicki McCune, director of a non-profit serving the Oklahoma Panhandle and bordering states, organized a “green letter writing campaign” to help the P&E line get public utility status.
“Talk to people. Find champions. That is Chapter One of the playbook,” Skelly said. Tell your story. Answer all questions. Talk benefits. Correct misinformation.
Are there fixes?
The federal government could streamline the process, Skelly said. The DOE is considering the controversial use of its eminent domain power for both the P&E line and the Transwest Express line that would deliver Wyoming wind to Las Vegas and Southern California.
“There is not clear consensus on infrastructure now and big changes in the relationship between the states and the federal government are unlikely,” Skelly said. “We are working with existing authority, whether it is federal, state, or local. We are not in the policy making business. We are just trying to get our projects done.”
The energy content of Oklahoma wind is 3.4 times that of wind in the Southeast. That will make the harvest and delivery of it cost effective, Skelly believes. Power producers will pay for the line to carry their electricity at a return to CLEP investors, Skelly said, of “around $0.02 per kilowatt-hour.”
“They will be competitive market disruptors,” said Exeter Associates Principal Kevin Porter, who does transmission research for Lawrence Berkeley National Labs. “The line will be the highway that delivers lower cost electricity and they will charge a toll to use it. But it is a very big capital expenditure with a fair amount of risk.”
Several factors are imposing delays and “considerable uncertainty” in transmission right now, Porter explained. The biggest is depressed load growth, a hangover from the recession. “Most of these lines were based on electricity demand growth. The need now for new lines is almost non-existent.”
The growth of distributed generation, low cost natural gas, state energy efficiency initiatives, and fulfilled state mandates are also dampening demand.
The on-again, off-again federal production tax credit (PTC) adds to uncertainty. “The Bonneville Power Authority’s “open season” procedures put 4,200 megawatts of new transmission capacity into construction from 2009 to 2011, when the PTC was set, Porter said. “In the last two years, with PTC uncertainty, BPA hasn’t had an open season. There was no demand.”
Despite the determination of CLEP and the TransWest builders, Porter doesn’t “see big multi-state projects happening in the near future.” Only if something big happens, like a commitment to fighting climate change, will transmission building stop “treading water,” Porter said.
The increasing impacts of climate change and new EPA rules will put much more pressure on getting clean resources, Wellinghoff said. “People will have to understand transmission lines are necessary, in conjunction with distributed resources.”
First in a series. Next: A look at the challenges to the TransWest Express line.