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Administration Seeks 'Coordinated Approach' to Transmission Siting

A Cabinet-level working group is in the process of developing a "coordinated approach" for permitting transmission lines on public lands to deliver primarily electricity generated from renewable fuels, said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last Wednesday.

The group -- which consists of the Council on Environmental Quality, the Office of Energy and Climate Change, the departments of Energy and Agriculture, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and other agencies -- is working on a "forward looking strategy" for transmission siting, cost allocation and coordinated permitting, he said at a transmission siting policy summit sponsored by The Energy Daily.

"A permit applicant with a project that would cross national Forest Service lands and Bureau of Land Management [BLM] lands should have the benefit of a single coordinated federal review of the proposal," he said. "I am confident that under existing authority we can dramatically improve the federal permitting process with respect to transmission projects."

In addition, "we need to map out electric corridors to meet the needs of a clean energy economy," Salazar said. He noted that the BLM has identified more than 5,000 miles of energy transport corridors, mostly in the West.

And "to get our grid under construction as soon as possible, we have focused on fast-tracking the projects that we believe at Interior are ready to go," he said. Salazar noted that BLM currently is processing 30 applications for major transmission rights-of-way on public lands -- seven of which would be located in Idaho, California and Nevada. He anticipates that the projects will clear the permitting process before the end of 2010.

The projects that are being fast-tracked range in size from 115 kilovolts (kV) to 500 kV, and could result in up to 1,000 miles of new transmission lines, according to Salazar. They include the 500-kV Devers Palo Verde project, Hooper Springs-Lower Valley transmission line, Barren Ridge Renewable Transmission Project in California, Hemingway Butte project, Palisades-Goshen, Southwest Intertie 500-kV line and One Nevada Line.

He said more than 260 solar and wind generation projects have been proposed on public lands, which would result in more than 5,300 MW of additional power. "We need to get that power from the places where it's produced to where it's used," Salazar said.

"Unfortunately America's electric transmission grid is...simply not up to the task. It is in efficient, geographically fragmented, [and] it is vulnerable to cyber attacks, to brownouts and to other disruptions. It simply is not designed to move large amounts of power from areas with high renewable energy potential" to market areas, Salazar said.

As to whether Congress should give FERC enhanced authority over the siting of transmission facilities, which traditionally has been the jurisdiction of state regulators, Salazar said he believes it is appropriate "to consider having FERC act as a backstop" in cases where states fail to act on transmission applications within a certain period of time. "It's also my fervent hope that can be avoided."

FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff echoed the sentiment. "I recognize and respect the long-standing role of the states" with respect to transmission siting, he said at the transmission siting forum. "States should continue to have the first opportunity to site transmission facilities. Nevertheless, I believe that under limited, appropriate circumstances, transmission developers should have recourse to federal siting authority at the Commission.

"Without additional federal siting authority I believe that it's unlikely that we [will] be able to achieve our nation's energy goal," Wellinghoff noted. He said federal siting authority would be helpful even if it is "limited" to situations in which a state has had an opportunity to address a project proposal in the first instance, and the transmission facilities are primarily for renewable resources.

Proposals to give the Commission backstop authority over transmission projects are pending in Congress, but lawmakers aren't expected to pass legislation before the end of the year given the busy agenda (see NGI, June 22).

Wellinghoff said a study is being conducted to help assess the "reliability impact of integrating large amounts of renewable generation into the transmission grid." He noted that is expected to be out in either March or April.

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