U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said the federal government has received 13 proposals from utilities and private investors to expand California’s major north-south power transmission bottleneck, called Path 15. The long-neglected constraint has been cited frequently as one of the major causes of power shortages in the state, and the Bush administration targeted the bottleneck as an area in need of immediate help.

“When we announced our plan in May to upgrade Path 15, it was dismissed as an old idea on which little had ever been done,” said Abraham. “Today, I am pleased to announce that those days of neglect and inaction are over. The administration’s successful plan has resulted in over a dozen proposals from the private sector and local utilities to upgrade Path 15 without using taxpayer funds. This federal initiative represents the first concrete steps to relieve congestion on the state’s power grid. It’s the equivalent to adding lanes on highway 405, but instead of relieving traffic jams we will be relieving electricity congestion in the state that results in high power rates and even blackouts.”

Path 15, located near Los Banos, is an 84-mile stretch of two 500-KV electricity transmission lines and underlying 230-KV lines. They operate in parallel, which means if one trips the others automatically pick up the slack by transferring the electricity to the operable lines. There are large, robust power grids in the south and north, but there’s this bottleneck between them.

According to most industry experts, the path simply needs to be upgraded with a third 500-KV interconnection. Building a third transmission line and other upgrades will allow for about an additional 1,500 MW to be transmitted across the state. The estimated cost is about $230 million and will take three to four years to construct. But until the recent price blowout, that was considered too expensive and time consuming. It’s now also unlikely to be upgraded by its operator, Pacific Gas & Electric, given that the utility is in bankruptcy court.

On May 28, Abraham directed DOE’s Western Area Power Administration to complete the planning needed to relieve the constraint and determine whether investors would be interested in financing the construction for the upgrades. Western is now in the process of reviewing the proposals and will make a recommendation within 30 days. Western is a federal agency within the DOE responsible for marketing electricity from federal water projects in a 15-state region of the West and for managing nearly 17,000 miles of transmission lines.

Meanwhile, at the request of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), House and Senate conferees have agreed to provide over $1.3 million in federal funds for the first stages of Path 15’s proposed expansion. The emergency funding would provide Western with the funds needed to conduct planning and environmental studies in preparation for the proposed expansion in transmission. The Senate and House last week approved the conference report of the emergency supplemental bill. It now goes to the President for his signature.

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