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TRANSMISSION: Obama admin faces 21st-century grid vs. public lands conundrum

Mar 12, 2009 - Scott Streater -

By any standard, the planned Navajo Transmission Project ranks as one of the nation's most ambitious power grid expansions, the kind government and industry experts say is essential to shoring up electricity reliability across the power-hungry West.

Starting in northwest New Mexico, the high-voltage line would stretch 470 miles across the desert Southwest and carry enough electricity to power more than 1 million homes in places like Las Vegas and Phoenix.

But last week, the Department of the Interior's Board of Land Appeals put the brakes on the 18-year-old project, in part because it relied on an outdated environmental impact statement (EIS) that overlooked critical habitat designations for two species -- the desert tortoise and southwestern willow flycatcher -- that were made since the project was first proposed by the Navajo Nation 18 years ago.

Environmental groups, long opposed to the Navajo Transmission Project out of concern that it would encourage development of new coal-fired power in the Four Corners region, cheered the appeals board's decision as part of a new mindset in Washington whereby Obama administration regulators would give much tougher scrutiny to projects that only months ago seemed destined to go forward even if they rendered a high environmental cost.

"I think they ran into a lot more problems than they thought," said Mike Eisenfeld, New Mexico coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance, which opposes the project.

Others, like Doug MacCourt, an attorney for the Navajo Nation's Diné Power Authority, characterized the board's decision as a minor setback, adding that the line's developers will simply update the deficiencies in the EIS and move forward.

Regardless of the outcome, the troubles for the Navajo Transmission Project suggest an emerging policy contradiction for the new Obama administration, which on the one hand has endorsed a wholesale rebuilding of the nation's electricity grid while at the same time promising a higher standard of adherence to the nation's environmental laws, including ramped-up protections of public lands from large-scale energy development.

Indeed, the upgrade and expansion of tens of thousands of miles of transmission lines is a centerpiece of President Obama's plan to expand the use of alternative energy like wind and solar power. Six-and-a-half billion dollars provided under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is aimed at providing tax breaks and other incentives to build out the infrastructure necessary to move that "green power" from rural production areas to market.

Just yesterday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued his first secretarial order that makes the production and delivery of renewable energy a top priority for the department. A key piece of that, he said, was securing rights-of-way for new transmission in the West.

Yet as the new administration enters its third month in office, the difficult job of reconciling energy and environmental priorities has come to bear on the debate over transmission, with the Navajo Transmission Project becoming exhibit A in what could be a protracted fight over the siting and permitting of new power lines.

But it certainly is not the only one, nor is it the largest.

New energy corridor

Consider the newly designated West-wide Energy Corridor -- a 6,000-mile right-of-way that crosses federal lands in 11 states. Among other things, the corridor should help facilitate the construction of new electricity transmission and distribution lines, as well as provide a designated thruway for new oil, natural gas and hydrogen pipelines. The Interior and Agriculture departments, which jointly manage much of the public lands in the West, formally adopted the corridor concept into their resource management plans just weeks before the Bush administration left office. The Obama administration says it is committed to the planning concept, as well.

"This is a big picture look at how we want to coordinate transmission lines across the western U.S.," said Kate Winthrop, project manager for the West-wide Energy Corridor at the Bureau of Land Management.

Transmission lines
The siting and construction of high-voltage transmission lines across the West could create tension between dueling federal priorities -- upgrading the nation's electricity grid while also preserving pristine public lands and wildlife habitat. Photo courtesy of Department of Energy.

But while the administration is pushing for new rights-of-way for energy projects, Democrats in Congress are pursuing a separate and potentially conflicting set of measures that would significantly increase protections on public lands, including the designation of 2.1 million acres of wilderness -- the most in 15 years. Transmission lines and all other forms of energy development are strictly forbidden in such areas.

Yesterday, House Republicans blocked the omnibus lands package containing the land protections when the measure was brought up under suspension of the rules. But proponents expect the bill to have another chance at passage this year.

Though Winthrop said the federal agencies were careful to site the energy corridor away from environmentally sensitive areas, no one is sure whether the designated energy corridor would bisect a wilderness area or other protected land. "We are concerned about ... the ongoing integrity of the corridors," she said. "We've tried to anticipate a lot of the major concerns during development."

There are other problems, too.

The Center for Biological Diversity has already notified the Interior and Agriculture departments that it will sue to stop the energy corridor, claiming the government failed to meet requirements under the Endangered Species Act to fully evaluate the effects of transmission lines on salmon, sage grouse and other threatened wildlife, said Amy Atwood, senior attorney for the center's public lands program.

Katie Fite, biodiversity director for the Western Watersheds Project in Boise, Idaho, said the overall issue has placed the environmental community in an awkward position. While she said the environmentalists support the development of renewable energy, the effort needs to be done in a way that does not create further environmental problems.

"I have no problem in speaking out against a wind project if it destroys beautiful wildlife areas when there are better alternatives," Fite said. "And it will mean the destruction of some beautiful natural areas in some very remote locations if these big power lines are built."

A pressing need

Few argue against the idea that the national transmission grid needs an overhaul.

Many of the high-tower transmission lines that stretch from coast to coast have stood for decades and were never designed to transport electricity over great distances.

That changed in the mid-1990s, with the deregulation of the electric utility industry. Deregulation created huge, multi-state markets that extended across entire regions, giving rise to the need for a transmission system that could carry power hundreds of miles away from the generation source.

The 1990s and early 2000s also witnessed a growing frequency of large-scale grid failures, culminating with the 2003 Northeast blackout, which left an estimated 50 million people without power in the United States and Canada on a muggy August afternoon. At the time of the blackout, the worst in U.S. history, more than 500 electric generation units at 265 power plants shut down, creating gridlock along the Eastern Seaboard from New York City to Baltimore and eastward to Detroit, Toronto and Cleveland.

Former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, within hours of the blackout, referred to the United States as "a superpower with a Third World electricity grid."

Compelled to act, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Among other things, the legislation required land-management agencies to designate energy corridors to facilitate the expansion of the grid. The 6,000-mile West-wide Energy Corridor is the largest project conceived to date under the 2005 mandate.

But the West-wide corridor is limited to federal land, and it is frequently interrupted -- in some cases for hundreds of miles -- by intersecting state and private parcels. Some state governments have been especially reluctant to permit interstate transmission projects unless they receive a share of the electricity, said Greg Williams, a former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission attorney now at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani.

That is one of the motivations behind legislation introduced last week by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Reid's proposal would allow FERC to brush aside state objections to the siting of transmission lines from alternative energy sources if state and regional leaders cannot agree where to route the lines within specific "renewable energy zones" that the Department of Energy would be required to designate (E&E Daily, March 3, 2009)

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) has proposed similar legislation, and the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee, which he chairs, is expected to discuss the issue at a hearing today (E&E Daily, March 10, 2009).

"The Reid bill will connect the dots" between federal and state land, Williams said.

"If you accept the notion that you want to get renewables on the map, that you want to encourage the generation of alternative electricity, you have to do something to get it to market," Williams said. "Once you've made that decision, then, yes, you need the transmission."

While renewable energy projects are planned for virtually every region of the country, there is evidence that the West will see a disproportionate need for new transmission, given its high potential for development of solar arrays, geothermal plants and wind farms.

The region's two largest public land managers -- the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service -- are currently evaluating more than 400 applications for wind and solar projects on federal lands. If approved, those projects would cover 2.3 million acres in seven states and generate an estimated 70,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to power more than 50 million homes.

BLM is completing a programmatic environmental impact statement examining the effects of these proposed projects on federal lands and will recommend policies to mitigate damage. At the same time, biologists from the Fish and Wildlife Service are leading a federal advisory committee to identify steps the federal government should take to regulate the alternative energy industry.

Is bigger always better?

Few argue that the current electricity transmission system meets the needs of a 21st-century economy. But there is an emerging school of thought that says large-scale electric transmission lines are unnecessary to meet the nation's power needs, and in fact, proposals such as the Navajo Transmission Project or the West-wide Energy Corridor may undermine the environmental benefits that come from switching from fossil fuel-based energy to wind and solar power.

The better way to go, according these groups, is to make electricity a home-grown commodity.

One way to do that is to encourage development of "distributed power," where energy derived from a single source, such as a wind farm, is distributed through a local grid that serves a designated geographic area such as a municipality or even a county.

Advocates of the approach say it can lower costs, improve efficiency and reliability, reduce emissions, and offer flexibility to communities that have multiple generation assets, such as wind and solar. Distributed power projects also reduce the need for multibillion-dollar transmission lines that require wide rights-of-way and cut indiscriminately across farms, forests and wildlife habitat.

More localized transmission could also save utilities and ratepayers money, said Ian Bowles, secretary of energy and environmental affairs for the state of Massachusetts and a former Clinton administration adviser. As much as 3 percent of the electricity coursing through a power line is lost into thin air due to resistance, and that number increases the farther the power is transported.

But while distributed power may work well in some areas, the overriding trend in the West is to expand high-voltage transmission lines and move large volumes of power from interior states like New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho to demand-hungry markets in California and the boom cities of Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Federal officials and industry experts say that transmission projects currently in the development pipeline will carry an additional 13,000 megawatts of electricity across the region by 2018, enough to power more than 10 million homes.

Grouse, salmon concerns hinder Gateway West

Among them is the $2 billion Gateway West project, expected to span nearly 1,200 miles across Wyoming and Idaho to Oregon, where it will connect with the much larger Western power grid and "keep the lights on" during peak demand, said Paul Kjellander, administrator of Idaho's Office of Energy Resources.

But the project, sought by utility giant PacifiCorp, has a new nemesis.

The sage grouse -- first described by Lewis and Clark during their 1804 expedition -- is currently under review by the Fish and Wildlife Service for possible addition to the endangered species list. The bird's habitat includes areas in the proposed paths of a number of proposed transmission line projects, including Gateway West (Land Letter, Aug. 21, 2008).

The concern is that the grouse depends on a sagebrush cover for food as well as protection. The transmission towers, it is argued, would clear away that habitat and allow predators like ravens to perch on the towers and indiscriminately prey upon grouse.

If the sage grouse were added to the endangered species list, FWS would likely require transmission owners and other federal land-management agencies to take steps to protect the sagebrush plains before authorizing new corridors.

Kjellander said he fears that such conditions could pose a big problem for the larger West-wide Energy Corridor, adding that the federal agencies in charge of evaluating the corridor's environmental impacts did not thoroughly examine endangered species implications.

Indeed, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned last year in written comments that portions of the proposed energy corridor in Washington and Oregon cross areas designated as critical habitat for chinook salmon. NOAA officials wrote that the agencies should consult with FWS and the National Marine Fisheries Service to satisfy federal law before proceeding.

Salmon habitat issues are expected to be at the fore of the forthcoming Center for Biological Diversity lawsuit challenging the West-wide Energy Corridor, said Atwood, the center's attorney.

For these and other reasons, Kjellander said, industry stakeholders have grown wary about moving forward. "The first [company] to use one of those corridors is going to get hit full-scale with all those issues," he said.

Streater is a freelance journalist based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Technical Articles - index of technical articles related to GENI's vision. Includes: articles written by GENI and about GENI concerning the proof of concept and some industry reports relating to the GENI vision

Updated: 2016/06/30

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