War Against a Wind-Rich Super Grid
May 6, 2010 - Matthew Wald - nytimes.com
After several years of debate, a coalition has emerged around the idea of a strong national electric grid, centrally planned and broadly financed, that would promote renewable energy. The group includes giant investor-owned utilities, public power entities, influential elected officials of both parties and state energy officials, and they speak with a single voice.
And they oppose it.
The group, the Coalition for Fair Transmission Policy, founded
in January, is trying to block the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission from approving a series of major transmission paths from wind-rich areas in the middle of the continent to load centers all over and then spreading the cost of the new lines around the whole country.
“It is fundamentally about fairness,’’ said Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, who hosted a panel discussion on Tuesday with Senator Robert Corker, Republican of Tennessee, to denounce such a plan.
Senator Wyden compared such power lines to gas pipelines or telephone lines that would carry fuel and traffic between New York and California but might pass through Oregon, “with no direct benefit to the people in my state.’’ The people in between, he said, should not pay.
Earlier this year Senator Corker successfully offered an amendment to an energy bill at the committee level that would require that payment for transmission improvements be made by those who benefit.
But the coalition went further. “Voluntary interconnection-wide coordination should be a complement to, and not a substitute for, local and regional processes,’’ the group said.
New transmission lines should be considered case by case and billed to the generators that would be hooked up to the new transmission or to the customers who would use the power, it said.
That approach seems counter to three studies in the last two years that propose a transmission “overlay.’’ This would be somewhat like an interstate highway system added to a network of local roads and would turn electricity from a product that is mostly locally produced and locally consumed into a national commodity.
The most recent of the studies, produced for the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory at the beginning of the year, stressed that wind power would become more valuable as it was dispersed around the country and connected with powerful grid links. Once wind was available from all over the country, it explained, production levels would average out and a steady supply could be predicted.
But opponents of a national plan say that it would be biased toward wind on the Great Plains, possibly to the exclusion of renewable resources closer to load centers, including offshore wind.
The existence of such a strong national grid would tend to “tilt the field in favor of distant renewables instead of local more economical resources,’’ said James Dickenson, chief executive of the municipal utility that serves the Jacksonville, Fla. area. “Subsidized transmission for distant renewables should not be allowed to crowd out local efficiency and renewables.’’
Bruce S. Edelson, executive director of the new alliance, said what his group really wanted to avoid was giving the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission the ability to block or mandate power line construction. A “bottom-up” planning process was much better, he said.
The Energy Department, meanwhile, has recently allocated $60 million in Recovery Act money for centralized electric grid planning.
Regional planning is common on the Western grid but not in the East, where an effort last year to put together a “super-regional” plan came to grief when Eastern officials walked out, making the argument that Mr. Dickenson did on Tuesday.
The planning for the Eastern grid is supposed to be transparent and open and is also meant to stimulate thinking on a broader scale than utility planners have generally undertaken. It does not deal with cost allocation, although it is concerned with total costs.