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New energy = new transmission lines

ALLEN BEST
special to the daily
AP file photo
AP | Alaska Electric Light and Power

DENVER – Giant wind turbines and solar collectors have become the icons for our great energy 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 recent 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.

North Dakota leads the nation in potential production of wind generation. The 10 windiest states have only 7 percent of the nation’s population.

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. Except for possibly Texas, most of this electrical potential remains well underdeveloped.

Gov. Bill Ritter, in a keynote address, said development of a new transmission infrastructure remains one of the key challenges to what, when he ran for office in 2006, he began calling the “new energy economy.” President Barack Obama last year appropriated the phrase.

“The Obama administration understands that this (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 FERC showed up in Park City for the annual meeting of the Western Governors Association.

Wyoming currently exports 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 then 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, which the line would cross.

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

“It’s very easy to block transmission lines,” noted 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.”

If consensus cannot be reached, 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, located 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.

Spitzer said his agency has had the power of eminent domain for creation of 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, a Democrat from New Mexico, would also establish a federal renewable portfolio standard of 15 percent by 2021. Currently, 27 states have such standards.

Analysts in Washington predict 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 overwhelming opposed the bill.

In the absence of clear federal policy, the states will continue to lead, said Tierney, “because Washington is just a harder place to find agreements on these types of things.”

But absent Congressional action, the Environmental Protection Agency will have the lead role in setting public policy that addresses greenhouse gas emissions. She predicted that EPA policies will be met with a flurry of lawsuits, many of them of a “nuisance variety.”

“It’s not a scenario people like to talk about, and in that case, the climate bill starts to look good in contrast,” she said.

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-reared Kristina M. 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 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, he said, “but the discussion doesn’t begin with the word ‘no.'”


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