States Want Control Over Power Line Decisions
By Kathleen Murphy, Staff Writer
The Aug. 14 electrical blackout affecting eight states and millions of citizens has renewed calls for more federal oversight of the nation's power transmission system, but state utility officials want to retain some regional control over the location of power lines.
The federal government has the power to create rights-of-way for oil and natural gas pipelines, but it has no authority over the location of electric transmission lines. States have veto power over construction of new power facilities intended to benefit multi-state regions, and local opponents often block the placement of electrical lines with political pressure and a "not in my backyard" mentality.
The siting issue is important because the nation's electricity demand is expected to increase 45 percent over the next two decades but currently there are plans to increase capability by only 4 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Department.
Raising a sensitive states' rights issue, U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said after the blackout that creating federal siting authority would help eliminate regulatory uncertainties that have hindered new transmission projects.
"Because the federal government does not have any authority to do sitingno eminent domain power unlike for interstate highways or pipelines or whatever failure to site sufficient transmission capability is obviously a problem. It creates occasionally the kind of bottlenecks that result in higher prices for everybody as well as creates stress on the system. That's one of the reasons we have advocated some sort of last resort authority for the federal government. In the absence of having a federal authority to do any siting, it might be questionable whether the states would feel much reason to be responsive," Abraham told the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee Sept. 3 in a hearing on the blackout's causes.
Ohio Gov. Bob Taft (R), and Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D), whose states were affected by the recent blackout, told the congressional committee they support federal involvement in siting decisions but only when states are unable to resolve siting issues regionally.
Taft said the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the agency that regulates interstate electricity transactions, should be "a backstop to settle disputes."
Granholm said, "States know where the sensitivities are. For state sovereignty reasons and the ability for states to describe their own landscape, the states should get the first crack at [siting decisions]."
John Thomasian, director of the National Governors' Association Center for Best Practices, said in an interview, "Governors want to know what caused the blackout, and we're far from learning that it had anything to do with line capacity. Was there something that prevented capacity from being expanded? The states would question whether they were ever in the role of preventing any such needed expansion, so there would be reluctance for states to want to cede siting authority to federal authorities. States would be supportive of streamlining the process, but that's different than saying we need to relinquish our authority on siting."
An NGA task force on electricity infrastructure last year urged governors to form multi-state entities to coordinate line siting at the regional level.
George Gross, a University of Illinois electrical engineering professor who specializes in power industry restructuring and economics, said in an interview that federal siting oversight would establish consistent rules, reduce uncertainty and make the siting process far more efficient.
But state utility commissioners and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) oppose federal siting authority.
Jim Burg, South Dakota public utility commissioner and chairman of NARUC's electricity committee, said, "The big utility companies do not want to have to come to each state and get siting authority. They'd like to have to go to one place in Washington and say, You run roughshod over all the people where we want to put this line because we don't want to go out and deal with them.' That's where the big push is. Part of our job is to make sure the people of our states get treated right, and we're concerned they will use eminent domain authority to abuse people."
Marilyn Showalter, Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission chairwoman, said federal siting authority is problematic because another layer of governmental review would lengthen decision-making and project a problem on the entire nation that only exists in part of the country.
"Before you entertain the idea of a federal role, you have to show the state siting process is not working. I don't think you can show that in the West. Is transmission getting built? In the West, it is," Showalter said.
Regardless of which government entity has jurisdiction, citizens are seeking a voice when it comes to placing high-voltage power lines in their neighborhoods. In Georgia, a grassroots group called Homeowners Opposed to Powerline Encroachment has campaigned for citizen involvement in power line placement and opposes federal intervention.
Georgia Sen. Chuck Clay, R-Marietta, co-sponsor of a failed bill to require public input in siting decisions, said he opposes federal siting authority because, "For states like Georgia that have good access to power and inexpensive rates, it's not something that I would be willing to delegate to somebody whose interest may not be Georgia. In terms of our state, there's little to be gained by that and much to be lost."