Obama Administration's Electric Transmission Announcement can be Good News for Renewables, if Done Right

10-05-11_Electric Transmission Map.jpg

The Obama administration’s Rapid Response Team for Transmission (RRTT), today announced a plan to accelerate the permitting and construction of seven transmission lines that are forecast to create thousands of operational and construction jobs. These projects are intended to serve as pilot demonstrations of streamlined federal permitting and will provide renewable electricity in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and create a much needed modern and efficient infrastructure grid.

All these lines are in some stage of National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review and all in at least some manner will benefit the integration of renewable energy sources. Some are more controversial than others in terms of environmental impacts and the power they will move. They are to be pilot projects in streamlined federal project review and approval. If the implementation of this plan is done right, it can be a real boon for renewable energy, by helping close the time gap between project development and access to transmission. Some of the best renewable energy sources on the planet are separated from the consumers that need it by hundreds to a thousand or more miles. Projects can be brought on line in several years while transmission can take five, seven or ten years to approve and develop. Significant amounts of the time is spent in the approval process, much of which is necessary, but some of which can be avoided if federal agencies and state and local jurisdictions better coordinate their activities. 

As this morning’s announcement stated: “Building electric transmission lines involves coordination among multiple federal, state, and tribal agencies subject to permitting, review, and consultation. Improving the overall quality and timeliness of these procedures enables the federal government to help expedite new transmission lines. Adding necessary transmission infrastructure will integrate renewable electricity sources into the grid, accommodate the growing number of electric vehicles on America’s roads, help avoid blackouts, restore power more quickly when outages occur, and reduce the need for new power plants.

The RRTT is comprised of nine federal agencies signatory to a 2009 Memorandum of Understanding on enhanced collaboration (Energy, Agriculture, Defense, Interior, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Commerce, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation and the White House Council on Environmental Quality). Read more about the RRTT here.

The Obama administration believes – and so does NRDC – that we can accelerate transmission approvals without cutting corners on environmental or cultural reviews. These pilot projects demonstrate that enhanced coordination can play a critical role in accomplishing the goals laid out in the Western Grid 2050 report (see my blog here) to get us on a trajectory to cut emissions in the West by 80% in 2050.  As always the devil is in the details, and this process will not be a spectator sport.  To be successful several elements not entirely spelled out in the administrations announcement will need to be included, to wit:

  1. The process needs to be for renewable energy, not “coal by wire.”  Transmission projects selected as “pilot projects” should at least focus on accomplishing the clean energy goals the President has articulated (1 million electric vehicles on the road within four years and clean power sources providing 80% of the nation's energy by 2035), and help move us rapidly toward a lower carbon future.
  2. The process should lean heavily on transmission planning efforts in both the Eastern and Western Interconnections, in which stakeholders from the environmental community, states, utilities, transmission sponsors, Native American tribes and consumer interests are working together to identify  and plan renewable energy transmission upgrades in lower conflict corridors.  Unfortunately the announcement makes no mention of this, although the administration is funding and has been very involved with the planning being done across the country.

None of the lines selected have been put through the new processes being developed in these planning venues, but all of them are in some stage of formal environmental review and permitting. NRDC has not explicitly endorsed any of these projects, though we have been working with the sponsors to help facilitate stakeholder consultation as they wend their way through the NEPA and permitting processes. 

Crossing twelve states the RRTT’s seven selected pilot project transmission lines are:

Boardman-Hemingway Line powering Oregon and Idaho:

The new 500 kilovolt (kV) transmission line proposed by Idaho Power would create an approximately 300 mile long, single-circuit electric transmission line from a proposed substation near Boardman, Oregon to the Hemingway Substation near Melba, Idaho—known as the Boardman to Hemingway Transmission Line Project or B2H Project.  According to the developer of this project during peak construction, this project is estimated to create about 500 jobs in Idaho and Oregon.

Gateway West Project to bring new transmission across Wyoming and Idaho:

Jointly proposed by Idaho Power and Rocky Mountain Power, this project would add approximately 1,150 miles of new, high-voltage transmission lines between the Windstar Substation near Glenrock, Wyoming and the Hemingway Substation near Melba, Idaho. According to the developer of this project, during peak construction, it is estimated to create between 1,100 and 1,200 jobs.

Hampton-Rochester-La Crosse Line to power to Minnesota and Wisconsin:

This double- circuit capable 345 kV transmission line will run between a new substation near Hampton, Minnesota, a new substation north of Pine Island, Minnesota, and continue on to cross the Mississippi River near Alma, Wisconsin. A single circuit 345 kV line will be built in Wisconsin to a new substation in the La Crosse area. Two 161 kV lines will be built between the new substation near Pine Island and existing substations northwest and east of Rochester. According to the developer of this project, approximately 1,650 jobs will be created during peak construction.

Oregon to get additional transmission from Cascade Crossing Line:

Portland General Electric’s proposed Cascade Crossing Transmission Project includes approximately 210 miles of 500 kV transmission line from Boardman to Salem, Oregon—for the construction of four new substations, expansion of three existing substations, and upgrades to the existing transmission systems near Salem.  According to the developer, Cascade Crossing is expected to create about 450 jobs during peak construction.

 SunZia Transmission, LLC to bring power to New Mexico and Arizona:

SunZia Transmission, LLC plans to construct and operate up to two 500 kV transmission lines originating at a new substation in Lincoln County in the vicinity of Ancho, New Mexico, and terminating at the Pinal Central Substation in Pinal County near Coolidge, Arizona. According to the developer estimated job creation will be about 3,408 direct jobs during the construction period.

Susquehanna to Roseland Line brings new transmission to Pennsylvania and New Jersey:

PPL Electric Utilities (PPL) and Public Service Electric and Gas Company (PSE&G) have proposed the Susquehanna-Roseland power line project which includes an approximately 145-mile long 500 kV transmission line from the Susquehanna Substation in Pennsylvania to the Roseland Substation in New Jersey, and several 500 – 230 kV substations in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  Based on the current schedule for the environmental review, the project is expected to be in service in the spring of 2015.  According to the project’s developer, over 2000 jobs in New Jersey and Pennsylvania are impacted pending the project’s approval from the National Park Service.

Transwest Express to stand-up transmission from Wyoming to Utah and Nevada:

TransWest Express LLC plans to construct and operate a more than 700 mile, 600 kV, transmission line which is estimated by the developer to create 1,035-1,550 direct jobs per year at peak construction. This project will facilitate the development of new wind projects in Wyoming.