SAN FRANCISCO — Talks about the need to modernize the transmission grid have swirled around in the renewable energy world for a while now, but big challenges in areas such as permitting remain for accomplishing that goal. The federal government says it wants to help, and it announced seven pilot projects on Wednesday to show how it could speed up the regulatory processes.
Nine federal agencies formed the Rapid Response Team for Transmission to oversee the seven pilot projects, which the team chose to show how proposals in various stages of permitting processes will move faster than before. But federal officials on the team declined to quantify just how fast that would be. A transmission project could take anywhere from five to 15 years to secure all the permits, said Lauren Azar, senior advisor to the Energy Secretary Steven Chu, during a conference call on Wednesday. Don’t count on an extraordinary cut to the amount of time it will take given the complexity of transmission projects and the potential need to secure not just federal but state permits.
“We need a better grid and we need that to build a better economy,” Azar said. “Transforming our grid won’t happen overnight. But we do need to take a long term view and begin that transformation today.”
More and better transmission lines are considered necessary for ferrying the growing amount of solar, wind and geothermal electricity in the country. Utilities are investing in these projects not only to serve their own territories but also to export renewable energy to nearby states that have clean power mandates. The U.S. Department of Energy approved a $343 million loan guarantee earlier this year to build a 235-mile, 500-kilovolt line from northern to southern Nevada. NV Energy, one of the project developers, is also working on a larger transmission project to bring wind and solar power from Wyoming, Idaho and Nevada to California, where the utilities are under pressure to get 33 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
The effort to expedite transmission projects also has to do with creating jobs. Job creation is a thorny challenge for the Obama administration and Congress and is already taking center stage in election politics.
“This is not just about jobs specifically connected to transmission lines. It also sends a strong message to the entire industry and give them the confidence to increase generation capacities,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Plans to work together to upgrade and build more transmission lines began two years ago, when the nine federal agencies signed a memorandum of understanding to officially kickstart the initiative. After meeting with utilities and others in the power industry, the response team picked the seven projects. The agencies involved include the departments of energy, interior, agriculture, commerce and defense, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Regulatory Commission.
The federal response team will work on three main areas: coordinate regulatory reviewing and permitting steps between federal and state agencies, take a “uniform and consistent approach” in working with American Indian tribal governments, and resolve disputes among agencies quickly. You can track the progress of the seven pilot projects by clicking here.
The agriculture department, for one, already has made administrative changes to open up the national forests for transmission development, Vilsack said.
If all goes well, transmission lines will be built across 12 states: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Wisconsin. The first project to start construction will likely take place in the fall of 2012, said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
Among the seven pilot projects, the Susquehanna-to-Roseland line is among the farthest along the permitting process, Azar said. The project, proposed by PPL and Public Service Electric and Gas Co., will build 145 miles of 500-kilovolt line from Pennsylvania to New Jersey and several substations. The project could be built and begin operation in the spring of 2015.