Congress, States Try to Harness West Winds


If microwaves in Los Angeles and air conditioners in Chicago are going to run using wind power generated by turbines on the Great Plains, the country is going to need thousands of miles of additional power lines to deliver the electricity.

For that to happen, state and federal leaders are looking at how to conquer imposing obstacles, from mountain ranges to a daunting economy to layers of red tape.

Backers of wind power say the stimulus package now being drafted by Congress - which could help build 3,000 miles of new lines - is a significant start, if only because it would be the first major federal push to improve the electricity transmission system in many years. 

But industry experts estimate it will take 19,000 miles of high-voltage lines to handle delivering wind power from prairies to cities and their residents.

Current versions of the stimulus package provide $8 billion to $10 billion in loan guarantees for builders of new power lines and renewable energy projects. The money would help builders get loans from potentially wary lenders.

The proposal also would devote another $4.5 billion to help electric utilities and their consumers upgrade to "smart grid" technologies, which would allow customers who have solar panels on their roofs or small wind turbines to sell extra electricity back to the utility companies when they don't need it. It would also help them lower their bills by keeping track of when they use electricity at off-peak hours, for example, by running their clothes dryers at night.

But the 19-state Western Governors Association stressed the need for different incentives that are not now in the legislation. In a letter ( PDF ) to congressional leaders sent Jan. 27, the governors pushed for extra money to encourage developers to build higher-capacity lines. Building bigger lines now would avoid the need for multiple small lines in the same area later on, the governors said.

High-capacity lines could avoid higher costs in the long run and problems such as "new environmental impacts, potential land-owner opposition and regulatory delays. State action alone cannot resolve this conundrum," the governors warned.

Construction of new lines isn't just a priority for renewable energy advocates. Ever since 2003, when cascading blackouts cut off power to 50 million people in eight Northeastern states and Canada, there have been calls to upgrade that part of the nation's 200,000-mile grid to avoid similar outages.

But the nationwide push in the 1990s to deregulate electric utilities helped slow the new construction of transmission lines, because it removed incentives to build them. Now that there's renewed interest in building new power lines, states' role in approving the projects is also coming under scrutiny.

Currently, states are largely in charge of deciding where lines can go. But finding an exact path can be difficult.

To link wind farms in Wyoming to California and Seattle, for instance, planners must navigate a path that avoids military installations, wildlife-sensitive areas, national parks, such as Yellowstone, and historic vistas along the Oregon Trail, not to mention natural obstacles like the Rocky Mountains.

And homeland security officials don't want too many lines clustered together, in case of a natural disaster or terrorist attack, said Rob Hurless, energy and telecommunications policy advisor to Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D).

States are working together on new interstate power lines, but they face challenges.

"If you've got wind electrons going from the Dakotas through Iowa to Wisconsin, who pays for (transmitting) those electrons?" asked Roya Stanley, director of the Iowa Office of Energy Independence.

To find a solution, five Midwestern states (Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin) are studying ways to fairly divide the charges among the states' ratepayers.

The Western governors are mounting an effort to identify areas where renewable power (including wind, solar and geothermal energy) is likely to be generated. Then, they'll share the information - along with how much it would likely cost to deliver the power - with utilities interested in buying the electricity.

Utilities in many areas are under pressure to find power from renewable sources, because 24 states have passed laws dictating that a certain amount of electricity must come from the environmentally friendly sources.

Still, renewable sources aren't always in demand. Doug Larson, executive director of the Western Interstate Energy Board , the energy arm of the Western governors group, said an Arizona utility recently passed on buying Wyoming wind power, because there was no guarantee the electricity would be available when Phoenix residents crank up their air conditioners on summer days when the temperature hits triple digits.

"States are doing what they can," to meet the Department of Energy's goal of providing 20 percent of American electricity through wind by 2030, said Robert Gramlich, policy director for the American Wind Energy Association .

But Gramlich and other renewable energy advocates are calling on states to give up some of their power to the federal government to help regulate the new energy programs.

"To get above 5 percent, we need a new regulatory system," Gramlich said. "We're optimistic Congress will turn to that after the stimulus."

David Hamilton, director of the Sierra Club's global warming and energy program, said it makes sense for the national government to take a bigger role, especially if more federal taxpayers' money is being used to build the electric grid. But he said the states still play a critical role.

"FERC (the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) can't figure out where every prairie dog's going to end up. So how do you build a process that builds trust and not distrust and gives states a real continuing role in where lines are sited, but makes sure lines are sited?" Hamilton asked.

Already, there are complaints about the limited role FERC, an agency in the Energy Department, has taken in trying to clear the way for new high-priority lines.

"A national grid is in the national interest. And I don't think anybody disputes that," U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) told Steven Chu, now U.S. secretary of energy, at Chu's Senate confirmation hearing.

"But the Department of Energy has designated the entire state of New Jersey as part of National Interest Electric Transmission Corridor," Menendez said, referring to an area where the federal government could potentially allow lines the state blocked.

Chu said the department should take a "gentler approach" but still needed to have a guiding role.


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