The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability (DOE) recently announced its plans to conduct a study of transmission congestion in 2012. The congestion study is the required first step in a process that could lead to the designation of new National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors, where the federal government can exercise "back-stop" siting authority if a state has withheld approval on a siting application for more than a year. While this backstop authority has been trimmed by court decisions, inaction by a state (as opposed to denial of a siting application) could give life to this federal power, and there is regular debate in Congress about whether this back-stop authority should be enhanced.

The 2012 study follows similar assessments in 2006 and 2009. In preparation for its 2012 study, the DOE will host four regional pre-study workshops in early December 2011 to receive input and suggestions concerning the study. Commenters also have until 31 January 2012 to direct the DOE's attention to studies or analyses that are now in process. In addition, as described below, the DOE is seeking stakeholder input concerning congestion conditions on their systems. Prior to issuing its final study, the DOE expects to release a draft of the study for a 60-day comment period.

Transmission congestion studies

The DOE is acting pursuant to section 216 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct 2005), which directed the agency to conduct a study of electric transmission congestion within one year of the enactment of EPAct 2005 and every three years thereafter. The DOE conducted its first and second studies in 2006 and 2009, which covered the entire national transmission grid except portions located within the purview of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. Both prior studies identified "Critical Congestion Areas" facing current or imminent transmission constraints, namely, the Mid-Atlantic corridor and the Arizona and Southern California region. The reports also identified "Congestion Areas of Concern," which are locations facing potential transmission congestion. Finally, in order to satisfy requirements of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, the 2009 Congestion Study identified "Conditional Constraint Areas" focused on areas of potential renewable generation.

Congestion studies are significant because they contribute information needed to support the future designation of so-called National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors (National Corridors). On the basis of a congestion study, and following public comments, the DOE may designate related geographic areas as National Corridors. This designation enables the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to employ its "back-stop" authority to approve the siting of transmission facilities within the area of the corridor to the extent that a state agency has "withheld approval" for more than one year of an application to site a transmission facility within the corridor.

We note that a 2011 decision by the Ninth Circuit, California Wilderness Coalition v. U.S. Dept. of Energy, No. 08-71074 (9th Cir. 1 Feb. 2011), vacated the DOE's 2006 study and the National Corridor designations based upon it, after finding that the DOE failed to properly consult with affected states and because DOE failed to consider the environmental impacts of its National Corridor designations under the National Environmental Protection Act.

For its 2012 study, the DOE plans to review many of the same kinds of data as it did in the prior studies, which include the following:

  • Electricity market analyses, including locational marginal price (LMP) patterns.
  • Reliability analyses and actions, including transmission loading relief (TLR) actions.
  • Historic energy flows.
  • Current and projected electric supply and generation plans.
  • Recent, current, and planned transmission and interconnection queues.
  • Current and forecast electricity loads, including energy efficiency, distributed generation (DG), and demand response (DR) plans and policies.
  • The location of renewable resources and state and regional policies with respect to renewable development.
  • Projected impacts of current or pending environmental regulation on generation availability.
  • Effects of recent or projected economic conditions on demand and congestion.
  • Analytic results from the eastern and western interconnection-level planning studies undertaken with DOE support.
  • Filings under FERC Order 890.

Regional workshops

The DOE will host four regional workshops in December 2011 to receive and discuss input relevant to the 2012 congestion study, including comments on what publicly-available data should be considered to identify and understand the significance and character of transmission congestion. Workshops will occur on the following dates/locations:

  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on 6 December
  • St. Louis, Missouri on 8 December
  • Portland, Oregon on 13 December
  • San Diego, California on 15 December

The DOE also intends to simulcast and archive the workshops.

Request for written comments

The DOE is also seeking stakeholders' written comments in response to this notice. In particular, it is soliciting the views of States, utilities, regional transmission organizations (RTOs), independent system operators (ISOs), and other stakeholders concerning:

[C]hanges in their respective areas since 2009 that affect the location, duration, frequency, magnitude, and significance of transmission congestion, including related transmission constraints. Special attention should be given to the question of how to gauge the magnitude or significance of congestion using publicly available data, including FERC 890 filings. In addition, DOE is particularly interested in comments that speak to the most appropriate and effective methods for distinguishing between the effects of technical limits on line loadings and possible contractual limits on the use of those same lines.