This month, the Energy Foundation and Energy Innovation Policy and Technology LLP released ‎‎“America’s Power Plan,” a report consisting of a series of white papers providing policy ‎recommendations which the authors describe as intended to “help the United States manage the ‎transition to a cleaner, healthier and safer energy future.” The report is the result of a collaborative ‎effort among numerous representatives from the utility, industrial, regulatory, academic, and NGO ‎sectors and, since its release, has generated significant “buzz” in the public debate regarding national ‎energy policy or the arguable lack thereof. “America’s Power Plan” includes policy recommendations ‎related to power markets, utility business models, financial risk management, distributed energy, and ‎transmission investment and siting. While all of these topics are necessary components of the national ‎energy discussion, the report’s recommendations concerning electric transmission policies are of ‎particular interest to energy stakeholders in the western United States where traditional as well as ‎renewable energy generation resources are frequently located remotely from the load centers they ‎are intended to serve and require significant transmission infrastructure.‎

Recognizing the often controversial nature of new transmission projects and the need for early and ‎coordinated stakeholder engagement, among the report’s chief recommendations is the need for ‎improved interagency, federal-state, and interstate coordination with respect to new transmission ‎projects. The report notes that existing siting processes require multiple applications to governmental ‎agencies and jurisdictions having an interest in the project. Given the linear nature of transmission ‎projects, this translates into numerous overlapping and sometimes conflicting permitting and siting ‎processes. The report acknowledges that the federal Rapid Response Team for Transmission, ‎established in 2009, has improved coordination among federal agencies, however, there is still room ‎for improvement at the state level where many states still have processes that require involvement by ‎and approvals from multiple entities. As a result, the report recommends that states adopt a “one-‎stop-shopping approach to siting” to expedite large energy and transmission projects.‎

All of the 11 contiguous, western U.S. states have some form of centralized authority that determines ‎the need for new transmission lines; however, each state employs a different approach to ‎transmission line siting and the balancing of related state and local interests. For example, the Arizona ‎Corporation Commission and the Arizona Power Plant and Transmission Line Siting Committee ‎coordinate to decide issues related to project need and location, however, the project proponent ‎must still comply with applicable local government land use ordinances and regulations. By ‎comparison, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has jurisdiction over ‎transmission siting issues and the Montana Facilities Siting Act provides that DEQ approval supersedes ‎any other state or local laws or regulations pertaining to transmission siting. Colorado provides a good ‎example of the concern raised in the Energy Foundation’s report. While the Colorado Public Utilities ‎Commission determines questions of need for a proposed transmission project, siting approvals must ‎be obtained from each state, county, and municipal government in whose jurisdiction the project may ‎be located.‎

In 2011, the Colorado General Assembly took a step toward addressing this issue when it passed ‎Senate Bill 11-045 which established a task force of utility, local government, and other stakeholder ‎representatives charged with developing recommendations to streamline Colorado’s siting and ‎permitting processes applicable to electric transmission facilities. Among other topics, the Task Force ‎considered the possibility of a single, statewide transmission siting authority in Colorado. While ‎various stakeholders saw merit in such an authority, the Task Force did not include this ‎recommendation in its final report. Unfortunately, the Task Force was unable to reach consensus on ‎many recommendations that would advance the goal of streamlining transmission siting in Colorado, ‎and Colorado’s transmission siting process continues to present the challenges described in “America’s ‎Power Plan.”‎

Western states are fortunate to have a wealth of energy resources but are equally challenged by their ‎wide open spaces and long distances between population centers. As a result, tapping the potential ‎of traditional and renewable energy resources to meet the energy demands of western states will ‎continue to require new transmission infrastructure and new approaches to transmission siting and ‎approval. The “America’s Power Plan” report provides a useful perspective on policy approaches to ‎meet these transmission challenges and is a worthwhile read for energy stakeholders throughout the ‎west.