The transmission puzzle
Renewable energy looks for the missing links

Photovoltaic solar panels tap the sun for energy atop a downtown Durango home last week. As renewable energy picks up momentum as part of Colorado’s “new energy economy,” transmission lines could emerge as the missing piece of the puzzle. New solar and wind farms may be left without a means of transmitting their green energy to the customer./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Allen Best

Giant wind turbines and solar collectors have become the icons for the transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources. But will giant electrical transmission lines ever become half as sexy?

They’ll have to, said speakers at the Colorado New Energy Economy Conference, a forum sponsored by the state government.

“If you’re going to be for renewable energy generation, you have to be for transmission,” said Marc Spitzer, a former legislator from Arizona who now sits on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The commission regulates interstate transmission of electricity and natural gas.

The essential problem is that most of the nation’s renewable energy resources are located in rural areas, far from what utility managers call “load” or demand centers.

The 10 windiest states have only 7 percent of the nation’s population, with North Dakota leading in potential wind generation. Colorado lies on the margins of what is often described as the continent’s wind alley, the Great Plains. From the Dakotas south to Texas, the region has steady gales. However, with the possible exception of Texas, most of this potential remains underdeveloped.

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, in a keynote address, said development of a new transmission infrastructure remains one of the key challenges to what he began during his election campaign in 2006 the “new energy economy.” President Barack Obama last year appropriated the phrase. “The Obama administration understands that (transmission) really is a challenge, and it could be an impediment to our economy,” said Ritter.

Evidence of the Obama administration’s acknowledgment of that fact was evident in June when three Cabinet members of the head of Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, of FERC, showed up in Park City for the annual meeting of the Western Governors Association.

Wyoming currently produces a third of the nation’s coal and much of its natural gas. In time, it hopes to become a major exporter of wind-generated electricity.

Colorado could also become an exporter of electricity created from wind, solar and geothermal sources but also natural gas, said Ritter.

Ritter alluded to the High Plains Express, a major powerline being discussed that would originate in eastern Wyoming, sweep southward across the windy high plains of Colorado and into New Mexico and Arizona, picking up more wind and solar power. Las Vegas, Phoenix, and other major cities would be the markets.

One advantage of such long transmission lines is that the renewable resources, most of them variable by nature, would balance each other. It is assumed that electricity made by burning natural gas, which produces half as much carbon dioxide as coal, will also be transmitted. Power from coal and nuclear plants also remains possible.

But transmission has been fraught with problems – even within a state. In Colorado, for example, a power line to help export solar electricity from around the Alamosa area to the Front Range is being fought in Huerfano County, where the line would cross.

In the case of multiple states, such disagreements can become magnified.

“It’s very easy to block transmission lines,” noted the FERC’s Spitzer. “There’s just no constituency for transmission lines.”

Environmental groups contend that much opposition can be defused if transmission planners carefully incorporate potential impacts at the outset. William Burnidge, The Nature Conservancy’s Northeast Colorado project director, said some areas must be avoided. In other places, however, “we want to have thoughtful conversations.”

But at the end of the day, what if consensus cannot be reached? In Colorado, local denials can be appealed to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.

But what about eminent domain?

“It should be a tool of last resort,” said Matt Heimerich, a commissioner in Crowley County, east of Pueblo. That said, he believes residents of his farm-based county, one of the state’s poorer places, support development of renewable energy. He believes transmission lines can be built through regional collaboration. “We like electricity,” he said.

FERC Commissioner Spitzer said his agency has had the power of eminent domain for natural gas pipelines since the 1930s, and with very little controversy.

Legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate this year would give FERC more power in creating what renewable energy advocates call “green energy superhighways.” The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., would also establish a federal renewable portfolio standard of 15 percent by 2021. Currently, 27 states have such standards.

Analysts in Washington predict that Congress will probably not act on Bingaman’s bill this year. The conventional view in Washington is also that the Senate is unlikely to impose a price on carbon, through a cap-and-trade system, this year, reported Susan Tierney, managing principle of the Analysis Group.

The House of Representatives in June narrowly passed cap-and-trade legislation

Similar legislation, called the Waxman-Markey Bill after its sponsors, squeaked through the U.S. House of Representative in June, with just a vote to spare. Analysts have pointed out that representatives from coal-producing states and those with largely rural populations overwhelmingly opposed the bill.

Still, even if Congress hasn’t put a price on carbon, it has allocated billions of dollars for modernization and expansion of the electrical grid. Colorado-raised Kristina Johnson, an undersecretary for energy in the U.S. Department of Energy, said that modernization will be needed if the United States succeeds in making renewables 35 percent of all electrical generation by 2030.

However, she added, the grid is already advanced enough to accommodate a generation of plug-in hybrids, she said.

Several Washington-based speakers at the recent conference said Colorado clearly stands out among states as a leader in the energy transition. So does Ritter.

But the politics of this transition always come down to the local neighborhood. Talking specifically about the San Luis Valley, he noted that land-use changes will be necessary. Solar farms may replace potato fields in places.

Just how the changes will occur will have to be discussed, Ritter said, “but the discussion doesn’t begin with the word ‘no.’” •

 

 

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