Transmission lines hold much of the same challenge and promise of the interstate highway system a century ago. The transmission network – the high voltage, long distance power lines that carry electricity from power facilities and into communities – is currently a patchwork system, lacking centralized organization or planning. Assuming that America cannot achieve 100% clean energy with distributed resources, the transport of renewable electric energy across state lines is a major hurdle to realizing a future without fossil fuels.
Transmission line siting is state rule. Generally, the federal government regulates the electricity that travels in the transmission system and the sale of that electricity. Siting is a matter of local land use controls and state sovereignty. Every transmission line that crosses a state border must go through the years long siting and permitting process of each individual state.
America has massive renewable energy potential. The Great Plains has been called the Saudi Arabia of wind. This photo has been floating around the Internet showing how little solar we would need to power the world. Wyoming has nowhere to sell its wind energy.
How do the transmission lines get built to move this energy from geographically isolated places to urban areas throughout the country? Why would any state sacrifice its sovereignty and bear the environmental, social, political, and economic burden of covering itself in transmission line networks to serve out of state end users? It’s a problem more complicated than requiring more renewable energy. It necessitates the federal government or perhaps regional interstate compacts to consider environmental, land use, federalist, economic, and political values.
Initially, transmission lines caught the nation’s attention after a series of blackouts in the early 2000s. Addressing these reliability issues and the underlying problem of transmission line bottlenecks, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 directed the DOE to establish National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors (“NIETCs”) and gave FERC some added authority over transmission line siting within NIETCs. A full recounting of these regulations and the resulting litigation is available here [pdf (pg. 8)]. Basically, eight years later the NIETCs do not yet exist and FERC’s siting authority is limited to being able to step in if a state does not act within a year on deciding on a transmission siting permit in a NIETC.
The pdf cited above focuses on FERC’s authority and does not fully consider what may be the best solution to the transmission line issue: regional interstate compacts. Authorized by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, states of three or more can sign regional compacts creating a siting authority that functions as a layer of government somewhere between federal and state. It provides a way of preserving state sovereignty while offering the administrative convenience of a single forum for multi state transmission line permitting. Rules would be created for the application process and federal courts would provide judicial review for any appeals. Importantly, member states would be able to work together to consider regional benefits. Kansas is taking the lead with House Bill 2101, which authorizes a regional compact and is now in the State Senate Committee on Utilities after passing in the House 118 to 1.
Interstate compacts may benefit the goals of FERC Order 1000 [pdf], which is meant to integrate renewable energy goals into transmission planning. Furthermore, these compacts could push state RPS programs, especially those that require in-state generation (which is unconstitutional anyway), to reconsider the amount of energy that could be supplied and where it would come from. They also may become more palatable if transmission lines were located underground like natural gas pipelines or offshore.
Utility scale renewable energy facilities will find a way to produce and there are multiple forces pushing them forward. The 7th Circuit just upheld MISO’s plan to finance transmission lines that will transport the supply of wind energy from remote areas of the Great Plains to meet the demand of urban areas throughout the service area. Essentially, rather than using the traditional method of allocating transmission costs to the geographically closest utility, MISO’s plan will require all utilities to proportionally share the cost of “Multi Value Projects” (transmission lines built to deliver renewable energy among other purposes), putting more of a burden on urban areas.
The wedge idea still exists; there will continue to be many complimentary energy solutions. I recently co-authored articles on the viability of microgrids for climate resilient communities and the interconnection rules for small-scale renewable generation. It’s been an exciting time to track the evolution of frequency regulation and storage. Developing these solutions and more while wrestling with multiple value systems is the best way forward. As far as transmission lines go, under current federal laws, regional interstate compacts seem promising.
Lead image: Transmission and wind turbines via Shutterstock