A transmission-interest group lamented the other day that the Department of Energy didn't specifically put upgrading and expanding the high-voltage transmission grid in the Strategic Plan it released earlier this month.
True, expanding the grid is not in there. "Modernizing" the grid is, and unsurprisingly, DOE focuses on new technology to make what amounts to a "smarter grid," to integrate renewables better and get to a more "actively controlled distribution network" (must be longhand for "smart meters").
But to the group known as Wires, building more transmission is essential, and DOE's championing of "policies that remove barriers to grid expansion and upgrades" is critical. DOE's Strategic Plan may not say so, but maybe Energy Secretary Steven Chu's new hire, Wisconsin utility regulator Lauren Azar, will focus on that as well as on the technology and innovation.
Azar has made a name for herself in the transmission planning and policy arena. As president of the Organization of MISO States, she dealt with thorny fights among transmission owners and customer groups about where transmission should go and who should pay for it (not that these battles are necessarily resolved.) MISO is the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator.
She was president of the Eastern Interconnection States' Planning Council, companion group to the Eastern Interconnection Planning Collaborative. She was engaged there in what could be the transmission planning challenge of the century: herding local, regional and commercial interests from everywhere roughly east of the Rockies to try getting some kind of coordination.
Before Azar was at the PSC, she did electricity law and, among other things, worked on creation of American Transmission Co., which put together various systems in Wisconsin to form the country's first stand-alone transmission company.
Announcing her appointment as senior adviser to Chu, the PSC said Azar would "work with industry, states and other federal agencies to facilitate the development of our nation's electrical infrastructure." Initial work would focus on "the transmission grid, transmission-related technologies (such as energy storage) and on the federal power marketing administrations."
Now, getting back to the Wires group, which calls itself "voice of the electric transmission industry" and whose full name used to be Working Group for Investment in Reliable and Economic Electric Systems. In a letter to Chu, President Jolly Hayden of NexEra Energy Resources says of the Strategic Plan that because doubling renewables deployment by next year is a DOE goal, "the absence of any mention of upgrading and expanding the high-voltage transmission system is inexplicable."
The industry and financiers are ready to put themselves into building transmission, Hayden says, and a Brattle Group study done earlier this month "confirms the tremendous potential that transmission manufacturing and construction hold for job creation and economic stimulus." DOE shouldn't take those benefits for granted, Wires says.
"Many barriers and challenges to future transmission improvements remain," the group says, and DOE must lead policy development to get rid of transmission-building barriers.
Transmission siting is a state issue, and Congress hasn't succeeded in making that any different. Transmission cost sharing is basically a federal issue (the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) but given the power industry's structure -- more state and local authorities than you can shake a stick at -- DOE will have to get creative to get far on this one.