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.