America’s Third World Energy Grid

This is a post re-blogged from Politico Magazine written by Bill Richardson, former Secretary of Energy and former Governor of New Mexico.

As secretary of energy in the Clinton administration, I often characterized the U.S. power transmission system as resembling a “Third World grid.” My aim was to highlight the shortcomings of the networks that deliver electric power to businesses and households throughout the United States—and the urgency of fixing this enormous problem.

Unfortunately, more than a decade later, the grid is little improved, and I’m still using the same analogy.

Harsh? Perhaps. But if America is going to meet the ambitious clean-energy goals the president has laid out, we’re going to have to do better. We are producing a lot more energy from renewable sources than we were 10 years ago—yet it’s not clear our faltering grid systems are capable of transmitting it from sites far removed from the population centers that traditional grid outlets were intended to serve.

Our electric systems has evolved over the past 100 years into what has become a balkanized system with hundreds of regional and local proprietors operating like fiefdoms rather than what is needed—an integrated, coordinated national grid system.

As such, we now have something of a grid clutter that is sustained by more than 9,000 generating plants and around 300,000 miles of transmission lines spread around the United States. If this continues unaddressed, it will eventually cause a substantial deterioration in our grid system’s security and reliability throughout the country. If the installed capacity continues to grow, with load-demand increases of around 3 to 4 percent, the current system might prove insufficient to support economic growth and revitalization of the country’s manufacturing industries.

It is time to consider taking a nationwide approach to the grid, not only to deal with all that jurisdictional friction but also to employ new technologies to maximize our energy resources, whether they are fossil fuels, wind, solar, hydro or nuclear plants.

Addressing this situation is especially urgent if we are to maximize the use and benefits of America’s diverse energy production, notably solar and wind energy. For example, growing wind power in the Midwest, notably Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, urgently needs a larger interregional transmission capability if it is to deliver power to eastern neighbor power grids. Even within large states such as California and New York, an ultra-transmission capability is also needed to effectively strengthen the grid structure.

The integrity of the power system is also a major concern. In the last few years, severe weather events have torn down transmission lines and crippled power-supply systems at a time when power is desperately needed. These harsh, often tragic, weather conditions are causing power outages that are becoming all too frequent, the most glaring example being Hurricane Sandy, which caused considerable damage along the east coast states last October. And the northeastern America blackout in August 2003 should be a clear warning what a nightmare an aged and weak grid structure with less coordinated control technologies can be.

Other countries are finding ways to address these problems. China, for example, is looking beyond its heavy dependence on coal and fossil fuels and is now aggressively pursuing renewable energy. The effort has made China a global leader in wind and solar technology and a major exporter of solar panels and wind turbines to many developed countries. But China is also upgrading its grid to enable a far more cost-efficient means of distributing power, covering vast regions throughout the country.

China’s State Grid Corporation has invested a breathtaking $100 billion in ultra-high voltage (UHV) technology that promises to remedy many of the power problems that have plagued China and other advanced countries for decades. China’s biggest challenge is similar to ours: linking the country’s new renewable installations, located in areas far away from the urbanized east coast, where energy demand is soaring. Without some form of UHV technology, energy from renewables simply cannot reach its destination markets efficiently. UHV transmission can also help optimize coal consumption by improving efficiency, both generation and transmission, to minimize load losses over long distances and reduce the intensity of greenhouse-gas emissions, a persistent challenge facing most industrialized countries.

If this new and promising transmission technology can deliver on its potential, improving the environment while increasing efficiency, can it possibly hold promise for America’s aging grid system?

I certainly appreciate that the costs associated with upgrading America’s electric grid will be a tough call for those involved. Some studies estimate that a business-as-usual approach will require investment of $18.5 billion over two decades, while a system designed to integrate renewables like wind energy on a large scale would cost more than $100 billion. And that’s to say nothing of the difficulty of finding and negotiating suitable sites for transmission lines – or any facility – today.

But we cannot afford to continually ignore or put off finding a solution to our energy woes. Despite the cost, the political hurdles and certain effectiveness that are to be gained with the piecemeal implementation of today’s “smart grid” technology, there is no getting around the fact that America’s power grid system needs to be upgraded on national scale.

Just as America found a way to achieve President Dwight Eisenhower’s ambitious vision of an interstate highway system, we can and must now construct a national transmission superhighway if we are to get the most from renewables and bring our crumbling grid into the First World.

(Original link here)

Building a Clean Energy Future: Transmission Is One Piece of the Puzzle

This is a post originally written by Seth Kaplan, Vice President of Policy and Climate Advocacy at the Conservation Law Foundation.

Dealing with the fundamental challenge of global warming and ending the direct and painful impact of fossil fuel-fired power plants on our communities and our families will mean systemic and systematic change to all aspects of our energy system – and doing that will mean employing a wide range of tools and strategies.

A first tool we must employ is already in our hands: efficient and smart use of energy in our homes and businesses.   Confronting the effects and implications of energy production can and must lead us to move forward policies that encourage both conservation (simply using less energy) as well as efficiency (getting more from the energy we continue to use).

Transmission-snapshot-slide

Another critical element in our arsenal for reducing emissions is the large, deep and pervasive deployment of clean energy generation.  Zero emissions electricity generation will take a wide range of forms and come in every imaginable size – from the smallest solar power installation to the largest wind farm.  Replacing the mammoth fleet of coal, oil and gas burning power plants that have kept the lights on for the last century will require a deep and abiding effort to find and embrace every reasonable opportunity to make clean energy.

Recently, I had the chance to participate in an online presentation about a tool that is needed to accommodate and make full use of our clean generation potential: electric transmission to bring clean energy from wind farms to the urban customers who can make use of that power.

The webinar was put together by Americans for a Clean Energy Grid – a group that brings together environmental groups and industry voices in support of renewable energy development as part of a series of such events they were convening to discuss developments in different regions. The slides and an audio recording from that event are still available online.

The story told that day is one of change – a change from the past when transmission was built almost entirely to meet the needs of electric reliability and satisfy rising demand for electricity to a new world where efficiency has ended such “load growth” and transmission is being built more and more to either move wind power from Northern New England or to import hydropower into the region from Canada to serve as “firming power” during times of less wind.

This change will not be easy or simple and it must be done right.  Imports of hydropower from Canada may or may not be part of the solution set we need – and any proposal to build transmission for that purpose must be carefully scrutinized and integrated into our planning for meeting the climate driven emissions reductions mandates on the books across the region.  This caution is even more true of natural gas infrastructure, whether it be pipelines or new power plants. Keeping our eye on the prize of meeting our climate and reliability goals in a sane and cost-effective manner will drive a push for greater efficiency, local clean generation and a measured amount of transmission to support bringing large-scale renewable energy (and wind in particular) to market.

If landowners get annual payments for wind turbines, why not transmission lines?

A transmission line crosses a field near Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by David DeHetre via Creative Commons)
A transmission line crosses a field near Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by David DeHetre via Creative Commons)

Reposted from Midwest Energy News

By Dan Haugen, 10/23/2013

For the large metal tower constructed on his land, one farmer will receive annual payments for as long as it stands.

His neighbor, however, whose land is divided by a string of vertical structures, gets a more modest one-time payment.

As a historic transmission build-out continues across the region, landowners are increasingly questioning the fairness of rewarding wind project participants more than those who allow transmission lines to cut across their property.

Frank James, staff director for Dakota Rural Action, says it’s an increasingly common complaint from South Dakota farmers. “You know what they’re getting paid for those turbines, and it’s pretty good,” James said. “You’re going to get a transmission line that serves those wind turbines and you don’t feel like you’re getting paid as [well].”

The comments were made Monday at the Great Plains Transmission Summit in St. Paul, where the topic of alternative landowner compensation models surfaced during several panel sessions. The conference was organized by Americans for a Clean Energy Grid and sponsored byMidwest Energy News.

An option for annual payments

State laws, utility regulations, and practical concerns all stand in the way of widespread changes to the way property owners are compensated for transmission line easements, but at least one company is experimenting with a new approach.

Clean Line Energy Partners is offering annual payments to landowners along its Rock Island Clean Line project, a 500-mile direct-current transmission line that would deliver 3,500 megawatts of wind power from northwestern Iowa to the Chicago area.

President Michael Skelly said they, too, heard landowner complaints about the disparities between turbine and transmission payments.

“I think their argument makes sense,” Skelly said in an interview.

As a “merchant transmission developer,” Clean Line Energy Partners isn’t regulated like a traditional utility. Its customers are wind farm developers who will pay to get their power to market, like a toll road for electrons.

That distinction has given Clean Line the legal leeway to get creative with its landowner payments. The company is offering an upfront payment for the value of the land, plus an additional “structure” payment based on the number and type of poles or towers.

For a single pole, landowners can choose between an additional $6,000 upfront, or they can elect to receive a $500 annual payment for as long as the line is in service. For the largest, lattice structures, the payments are $18,000 upfront or $1,500 annually.

“We think that the annual payment will be pretty attractive,” Skelly said. “We’re just [starting to] acquire right-of-way, so I’m not by any stretch of the imagination declaring victory, but it does feel like the industry may evolve over time in [this] direction.”

Skelly said they felt a need to offer something different because it’s their first time working in the communities they’re approaching. They don’t have the benefit of established relationships that an incumbent utility might, he explained.

“What it does is it tells landowners that you are a partner in this project,” said Johnathan Hladik, a senior policy advocate for the Center for Rural Affairs, who praised Clean Line in his presentation at the summit for being willing to try something new.

Hladik speculated that some of the added costs might be offset later on if they lead to less litigation and fewer project delays.

The utilities’ view

Kristine Schmidt, president of ITC Great Plains, a subsidiary of the nation’s largest transmission company, was skeptical about the feasibility of royalties or other types of annual payment for transmission easements.

“When you put a wind turbine on land, or if you put a wellhead on land,” she said, “that’s a resource you’re capturing.” Transmission has more in common with roads or pipelines, in which you’re moving a resource rather than producing one, she said.

Schmidt also stressed that there are other economic benefits to a community from transmission projects besides landowner payments. For example, workers stay and spend money in the area while building and maintaining the lines.

“When you look at it holistically, there’s a lot more value being given on the local level than just that one-time payment,” Schmidt said.

Teresa Morgensen, vice president of transmission for Xcel Energy, also noted that offering annual payments would raise fairness issues for landowners with easements in place for transmission projects that have already been built.

James, of Dakota Rural Action, said it’s his hope, too, to get past the “what-are-you-going-to-pay-me conversation.”

He acknowledged that utilities are constrained by state laws and what costs regulators will allow them to pass on to customers. He’d like to see utilities help lobby to lift those restrictions, but there are other ways they could provide value to landowners, such as supporting community-owned energy projects.

James said utilities are generally well-respected and appreciated in their communities. He cited as an example the local utility’s quick response when an ice storm leveled the power line serving his parents’ property in rural South Dakota.

“This relationship [between utilities and landowners] is not in a negative place,” James said, “but building on that is something that I think you should really consider.”

transmission blue sky

Transmission is Key to a Diversified Energy Portfolio

This article originally appeared in Crains Cleveland Business on August 14, 2012.

The demand for reliable and cost-effective electric power continues to increase in the U.S. and around the world. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration in its Annual Energy Outlook 2012, the demand for electricity in the U.S. is expected to grow by 22% by 2035.

Clearly, we will need to add a significant amount of electricity generation capacity to meet that demand. But is that the end of the story?

Many experts would argue that modernizing and expanding the capacity of our nation’s electrical transmission grid is critical to assuring the long-term stability of our electrical system and its ability to meet ever-increasing future demand. One source of new electricity generation that experts look to in order to meet our increasing demand is wind energy. In some parts of the country, wind energy is now very cost effective and competitive with other sources of new generation. But, as we all know, the wind doesn’t always blow at the same speed all the time.

This intermittent nature of wind energy causes a variety of complex technical issues and challenges for utilities and grid operators as they try to integrate wind energy into the grid at a large scale. Essentially, the current grid has limitations on the amount of wind energy it can accommodate, which is one of the obstacles to large-scale wind deployment. If we want to achieve higher levels of wind energy on the grid, then we must address this problem.

Energy storage technology is one way to deal with the challenges presented by intermittent power. Researchers and companies already are working on this issue. In fact, here in Northeast Ohio, Ashlawn Energy is developing a large scale battery (1 megawatt; 8 megawatt-hours) for the City of Painesville Municipal Power Plant in Lake County. The battery will allow the City of Painesville to store some power when the wind is blowing and then release it when the wind is not blowing. This technology has the potential to truly transform our electricity grid.

In addition to energy storage, another approach to managing intermittent power can be found by expanding the transmission system. The wind blows at different speeds and at different times of the day across different parts of the country. When you look at wind in aggregate across the U.S., it is much more consistent and continuous than in any one geographic area.

What if we could move, or share, the wind energy generated in one part of the country to match the needs in another other part of the country? If we could do that, then we could achieve a more consistent energy output from our nation’s wind resources and solve many of the challenges associated with integrating wind energy into the grid. But in order to tap into this opportunity, we need the ability to move large-scale quantities of energy around the country. This would require significant expansion of our transmission system.

Updating and expanding the transmission infrastructure has its own challenges and will require significant investment. Last week, I participated in the Ohio Clean Energy Transmission Summit, in Columbus, to discuss challenges associated with the current transmission infrastructure and the possibilities for the future. The daylong gathering examined many facets of this complex issue, including regulations and policies for new transmission capacity, costs and benefits associated with new transmission infrastructure, and the impact it will have on developing new energy resources. The economic development opportunities offered by investments in transmission were also discussed.

Ultimately, any changes to the transmission grid depend upon the regulatory framework established by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The independent government agency regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas and oil. FERC recently issued a landmark order, Order 1000, which reforms the Commission’s electric transmission planning and cost allocation requirements for public utility transmission providers. Order 1000 is intended to ensure that regions are able to build the transmission infrastructure they need to meet the needs of their consumers and that the costs will be allocated in a fair manner. Currently, many utilities and grid operators across the country are responding and trying to understand this new FERC order and how to make it work in their region.

Expanding the electric transmission system will provide a more reliable, resilient grid for all of us and will enable the integration of multiple generation sources to achieve a diverse portfolio. However, we must be smart about making these investment decisions by objectively weighing the costs and benefits of building out the transmission infrastructure.

transmission blue sky single

Investing in the Grid: When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough get… Creative

This article originally appeared on ThirdWay.org on August 2, 2012.

The unexpected storms that knocked out power to millions in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic earlier this month highlighted how fragile America’s electric grid is. But while front page photos of fallen trees and utility repair trucks capture people’s attention, there’s a much more grave and fundamental threat to our electric grid.

The U.S. grid system was born in the 1920s, and has seen few major upgrades since the 1960s. With America’s growing population and exploding demand—bigger houses, A/C units, TVs, iThings—we have serious congestion and inadequate capacity on our nation’s power lines. This has led to more frequent power outages, which cost the American economy well over $100 billion each year. The inefficiency of our old-fashioned grid also leads to enormous waste through “line loss.” In 2010, 6.6% of the electricity generated in the U.S. simply disappeared before it could reach consumers. That’s $25.7 billion worth of electrons, lost into thin air.

Investing in grid modernization would clearly save American consumers tremendous amounts of energy and money. So why aren’t we doing more of it?

One reason is that these projects are just plain difficult to carry out. Siting and constructing power lines usually requires a utility to go through environmental regulators and public utilities commissions for each state they cross, as well as federal regulators and local governments. These regulations are intended to provide important benefits or protections for ratepayers, communities, public safety, and the environment. But they rarely line up well with one another and are, at times, contradictory.

An equally complicated barrier to grid modernization is figuring out exactly who should pay for it. The power grid is owned and operated by about 500 individual utilities, some large, some small, some private, some public. And the grid is totally interconnected, so if one utility does work to improve its segment, the benefits often flow to utilities and consumers somewhere else. It’s the standard “freeloader” problem.

Despite these challenges, one particularly creative transmission project appears to be threading the regulatory needle—and could possibly serve as a model for other desperately needed grid improvements. If it receives final approval by state and federal agencies, the Champlain Hudson Power Express (CHPE) will connect up to 1,000 MW of wind and hydro power from Canada and upstate New York to energy-hungry New York City. This renewable energy, when added to the clean nuclear and natural gas plants that already power the city, will reduce congestion and other strains on the grid—improving service for families and businesses in this service area. In addition to creating 2,000 jobs in New York State, this project is expected to reduce acid rain pollutants by hundreds of tons and lower New York’s annual carbon dioxide emissions by 9%. And perhaps most importantly, CHPE will directly benefit consumers, saving ratepayers a whopping $600 million each year.

All of the costs of developing the CHPE will be paid by third-party investors who will be repaid by power generators that utilize the lines once the project is finished. This financing method avoids the stalemate that often results when utilities are left to cover costs and seek reimbursement through politically complicated rate increases. Knowing the “not in my backyard” resistance generated by giant transmission towers normally used for such projects, CHPE’s owners chose less-intrusive infrastructure to smooth its regulatory path. Their system will consist of two power lines roughly the diameter of coffee cans running 333 miles—mostly buried in Lake Champlain, the Hudson River, and along railroad tracks—using construction techniques that garnered the approval of local environmental organizations. So by planning ahead and collaborating with major stakeholders over a period of four years, CHPE’s investors have found a way to streamline compliance with multiple regulations, expedite permitting, and ultimately save money.

The U.S. needs to resolve the state and federal regulatory issues that make siting power lines and recovering the cost of grid investments prohibitively difficult. Our interconnected grid system can no longer be regulated as it was a century ago, when each utility operated its own power lines. To manage a regional system, we’re going to need regional coordination and authority that, in limited situations, supersedes that of the states. Until this type of legislative fix is made, let’s hope that CHPE and other equally creative projects are able to thread that needle.

utility worker

The Future of the Grid: Why Modernizing our Nation’s Aging Grid is Critical

This article was previously posted on NRDC’s blog, Switchboard.

A major southern California blackout last fall cost the public more than $100 million in losses. The power outage knocked out traffic lights, causing gridlock on roads in the San Diego area. Two reactors at a nuclear power plant along the California coast went offline after losing electricity, and nearly 3.5 million gallons of sewage spilled into the ocean, closing beaches in San Diego.

According to a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission/North American Electric Reliability Corporation (FERC/NERC) report, insufficient grid coordination and a lack of coordinated planning were major causes of the incident. This is just one of the reasons why our aging grid needs to be modernized.

Last week I blogged about the congressional pushback to Energy Secretary Chu’s directive to the nation’s Power Marketing Administrations (PMAs) to better coordinate efforts with other system operators to integrate renewable energy sources into the grid, enhance reliability and efficiency, and ensure the long-term security of our electrical system.

Taking these steps should make delivered electricity cheaper for all customers of the grid, including the PMA’s “preference customers” – public municipal utilities and rural cooperatives that provide electricity to about a quarter of the nation’s consumers – by preventing the need for duplicative transmission infrastructure and reserves, and increasing operational efficiencies.

Starting this week, DOE and the Western Area Power Administration are hosting public meetings to gather on-the-ground input vital to efforts to achieve a more secure and sustainable electric sector in the western United States.

While these workshops are critical to developing consensus about how to modernize our nation’s aging grid, I expect these traditional preference customers of the Western Area Power Administration (Western) – for whom at-cost electricity is provided from federal hydropower resources – to turn out in force to oppose the changes. That’s too bad.

The ingredients are there for a rational way forward if people are willing to work together. I believe that there is plenty of room to partner with both PMAs and their preference customers to implement constructive operational and system improvements to the nation’s power grid. No one is calling for a retreat from the longstanding mission of PMAs to provide cost-based power to preference customers. Some preference customers are strong supporters of renewables, which could thus be a place to find common ground.

Let me go into more detail:

The preference customers have done the country a great service by helping pay off federal investments in the public hydro system. This low-cost power has been put to use in service of mainly rural economies to good effect. Customers of Western’s power also pay for most operating costs, though, except for Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), which is largely self-funded, the federal taxpayers annually provide between nine and 12% of the PMAs annual operating budgets. These expenses are expected to be recovered through rates as part of the “power at cost” ratemaking calculation. Understandably the preference customers want to maintain their current low electricity rates and fear that system upgrades will increase their costs for the benefit of others.
WAPA Service Territory
But, will having a more efficient system that is better integrated into the larger grid really increase costs? In the West, BPA and WAPA collectively control over 33,000 miles of transmission lines and 594 substations. BPA is a primary transmission provider – controlling approximately 70% of the grid – in two states. Modernizing the grid may not be possible without them.

As it turns out, the administrators of both BPA and Western have publicly disagreed with the notion that the Secretary’s proposed changes will increase costs. In fact, they did so before a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power hearing on Capitol Hill on March 20 this year.

Stephen Wright, administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration, told the subcommittee he does not expect costs to increase and that much of what Secretary Chu called for in the memo plays into ongoing activities currently under way. “At this point, I have no reason to believe that rates will go up,” Wright said.

Timothy Meeks, administrator for the Western Area Power Administration (recently retired from Western), said people who benefit from any upgrades or changes to the system would pay and that investments are needed because the transmission system is aging.

Indeed many of the changes suggested by Secretary Chu are already being implemented by PMAs, such as intra-hour scheduling and more coordinated regional operations. Western is fully engaged in regional planning efforts in the “WestConnect” subregional transmission planning group, which under FERC Order 1000 will facilitate cost allocation of transmission lines to those who demonstrably benefit.

Moreover, the changes proposed by the Secretary are either already being considered by balancing authorities (such as a western regional energy imbalance market designed to smooth renewable integration), or imposed by rule on the grid operators under FERC jurisdiction. Furthermore, improving the situational awareness between balancing authorities, would be a major reliability improvement. As cited in the FERC/NERC report on the southern California blackout, insufficient grid coordination and a lack of coordinated planning were major causes of the incident. It just so happens that Secretary Chu’s memo highlighted these very areas as in need of attention by PMAs.

“This [FERC/NERC report on the blackout] highlights the growing need for more coordination of grid operations in the West,” FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff said in an agency release. “Implementing the recommendations in this report will assist in enhancing the planning and system awareness measures that are necessary to operate an efficiently integrated bulk power system, and reduce costs to consumers from these types of outages that could continue if operational efficiencies are not improved.” As the rest of the grid modernizes, would it benefit PMAs’ customers to be left behind?

The real argument may boil down to who controls the PMAs, which are federal agencies and part of the Department of Energy. Some preference customers seem to believe that PMAs should only exist to provide them with at-cost electricity from federal hydro projects, and that any other mission, including accommodating renewables, is unacceptable. As an agency of the federal government, its assets are public, so they belong to all the people. They are not private nor subject to any owner’s decision making. A PMA is accountable to Congress and through Congress to the people. As part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, PMA authorities were expanded to include partnering to build transmission for renewable energy and they were afforded increased borrowing authority to facilitate it.

Though they will complain loudly at the workshops in the coming week, preference customers have to understand that their grid is changing all around them and they will need to change too. It doesn’t have to be costlier. It can be cheaper, and better, but it will be different.

To learn more about the WAPA hearings, to attend one or comment, go to: http://ww2.wapa.gov/sites/Western/about/Pages/Definingfuture.aspx.

For information on the workshops:

July 24—Phoenix, Ariz.
July 26—Sacramento/Folsom, Calif. (held in Rancho Cordova)
July 31—Loveland, Colo.
Aug. 2—Sioux Falls, S.D.

If you can’t attend a meeting, you can still comment via email to JOT@wapa.gov. Please provide your name and identify your organizational affiliation in your submission. Your comments will be most useful to the WAPA team if submitted by Aug. 3; however, we will accept comments until Aug. 17.

wind turbine

Wyden’s Grid Lock

This article was previously printed in the Portland Mercury.

Clean Energy Takes Hit from a Wyden-Sponsored Bill

Oregon prides itself on being green. So guess which senator is trying to smother a new federal effort to pour more—and cheaper—renewable power into the nation’s electric grid: It’s our senior Democratic senator, Ron Wyden.

Wyden is pushing a bill, the Mercury has learned, meant to block a regulatory order that makes it easier to string new high-voltage transmission lines out to far-off places like wind farms and solar arrays. It’s touted as a consumer protection act that would keep customers from over-paying for these new lines. But environmentalists say the Wyden-backed bill—by exploiting technical minutia—would actually protect inefficient, fossil-fuel-powered utilities from competing with cheaper, cleaner sources of power.

To push the bill, Wyden has teamed up with Republicans—just like he’s done on Medicare and health care reform. Why, exactly, is a mystery. Wyden isn’t talking; his staffers declined our repeated requests for comment. But one thing is certain: Environmentalists and clean-energy advocates hate his bill.

“It’s a whopper, or misleading at best,” Bill White, a senior advisor at Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, says about Wyden’s attempt to brand the bill as a consumer protection act.

Behind the bill, known as S400, stands a group of seven privately owned, mostly East Coast-based electrical utilities. Organized under an umbrella group called the Coalition for Fair Transmission Policy (CFTP), these utilities have lobbied hard for S400 in the US Senate. CFTP members have also donated to five of the bill’s seven co-sponsors—although Wyden has not received their money.

Called the “Electric Transmission Customer Protection Act,” S400 was introduced by Tennessee Republican Bob Corker in February 2011. Environmentalists say it was a preemptive strike against the power-lines order by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Wyden was the bill’s first cosponsor; others joined later.

The CFTP itself was formed the previous year to counter an ambitious energy plan proposed by New Mexico Democrat Jeff Bingaman. The group found a kindred spirit in Corker after he slapped an amendment onto Bingaman’s bill. The amendment was a precursor to S400, and sources say Wyden voted for it. But Bingaman’s bill didn’t become law. So CFTP got behind S400. What the bill’s proponents hope to accomplish, environmentalists say, is to raise enough technical questions about how to pay for the new lines so that they’re never built.

It helps to think of the nation’s electrical grid as a bucket whose bottom is full of holes. It’s really easy to see the source of water that’s poured into the bucket; but once in the bucket, it’s hard to tell where water from each source comes out. And this, says White, is the problem that the utilities behind CFTP hope to exploit. Wyden’s bill wants to saddle the feds with the impossible task of knowing exactly which electrons are going where.

CFTP President Sue Sheridan told the Mercury that her organization’s overarching concern is making sure consumers and utilities don’t have to pay for “socializing” the cost of new lines that won’t directly benefit them. “If you end up subsidizing the cost of transmission broadly,” says Sheridan, “you end up masking the real cost, and that’s not something that should be done when you have customers receiving no benefit on the other end.”

But environmentalists say Sheridan’s concerns are overblown.

“It’s not that people will pay too much for lines they don’t benefit from,” says White. “It’s really the opposite problem that people are trying not to pay for things that they will benefit from.” The real issue, they say, is keeping out competition from renewables. And there is evidence to support this claim.

In the Midwest, adding transmission lines for wind power has actually brought down the cost of electricity. The reason, according to an independent study requested by White’s group: Beyond the cost of constructing power lines and windmills, wind itself is cheap. In fact, wind is free. Putting all that cheap electricity on the market draws down the cost of all the rest of the power being sold at the same time, and that means fossil-fuel plants could lose money.

As for Wyden’s bill, since its introduction in February 2011, not much has happened. The bill has no counterpart in the US House, although that could change next year. And it’s still stuck in a committee. That could change, too, thanks to election year politics.

Questions about the power-lines order have also come from local utilities.

Portland General Electric and PacificCorp, through a regional planning group, both expressed concerns about how the lines should be funded—but Portland General Electric spokesman Steve Corson says the group has decided to go along with the order. This may not be the case for the Bonneville Power Administration, which is putting up a fight even though utilities nationwide are supposed to be actively complying with the order.

Bonneville Power is concerned that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s order could interfere with the agency’s legal mandate to keep electricity rates low. But Bonneville Power will no doubt have to tread lightly on the issue given that environmentalists are still livid with the agency for how it kept excess wind power off the grid last year.

“They did not answer our question on cost allocation,” Chuck Combs, a lawyer for Bonneville Power, says of the feds. “We are still in the process of deciding what to do.”

transmission blue sky

RSVP: Clean Energy Transmission Summit

Seth KaplanSeth Kaplan, Vice President of Policy and Climate Advocacy for the Conservation Law Foundation, originally posted this on clf.org

Next week I’ll be participating in a clean energy summit in Boston that will feature Congressman Ed Markey and FERC Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur. Attendance at this event is free. Please RSVP today.

This event brings together key Federal officials from the Administration and Congress, their state counterparts, clean energy industry leaders and the environmental community and energy consumers to forge clean energy solutions that benefit our economy and our environment drawing on the full range of options from renewable energy to transmission infrastructure to demand side solutions like energy efficiency.

Please join me and others for this engaging, important conversation.

Click here for conference details.