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Avista part of high-voltage line study

Apr 5, 2009 - McClatchy-Tribune Regional News -Becky Kramer The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash.

Avista Corp. and three other utilities are exploring the possibility of building a high-voltage transmission line that would stretch roughly 1,000 miles from southern British Columbia to the San Francisco area.

The line would move up to 3,000 megawatts of electricity to California, including kilowatts harvested by wind farms in Eastern Oregon and Washington, as well as electricity produced by British Columbia's dams. At capacity, the line would transport enough electricity to serve 2.25 million households. The energy would help California utilities meet stringent guidelines for renewable energy in their product mix.

Starting next year, California utilities must get 20 percent of their new energy from renewable sources, such as wind, hydropower and solar. The law was designed to curb the growth of greenhouse gases. It has sparked a number of entrepreneurial endeavors in the Northwest aimed at selling clean energy to California markets, said John Harrison, a spokesman for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council in Portland.

"There's a growing demand for energy, renewable energy in particular," said Dan Lavey, a spokesman with Gallatin Public Affairs, which represents Avista and the three other utilities in the transmission line project.

He said the new line would ease congestion on existing transmission lines, while getting clean energy to densely populated areas.

The estimated cost for the transmission line is $4 billion to $7 billion. Construction could start as early as 2013, with the line going into service two years later. Although most of the electricity would flow south, California utilities could also use the line to sell energy to Northwest markets, Lavey said.

With 650,000 customers, Spokane-based Avista is one of the smallest utilities involved in the project. The other players are: Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in San Francisco, which serves 15 million customers in north-central California; Pacific Corp., which is based in Portland and has 1.7 million customers in the Northwest; and British Columbia Transmission Corp., a subsidiary of BC Hydro, the utility that provides electricity to most of British Columbia.

Avista is contributing $600,000 toward a feasibility study, which should be finished by the end of the year. As part of the study, engineers are looking within a 40-mile wide corridor for possible routes. The utilities began talking to counties and cities along the proposed path in January.

Building the transmission line would require permits from state, federal and provincial governments. Avista's financial participation in the project would also fall under the scrutiny of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, which regulates Avista's electricity and natural gas rates.

The project interests Avista on several levels, said Hugh Imhof, a company spokesman. The proposed line would carry three times the volume of electricity that Avista's current transmission system does. The proposed route runs west of Spokane.

"We know that we'll need additional transmission capacity in future years, and the line comes very close to our existing facilities," Imhof said.

Avista is also looking for ways to add renewable energy to its portfolio. By 2020, Washington law will require utilities operating in the state to acquire 15 percent of their new power from renewable resources. The transmission line could help Avista tap into wind and hydropower generated by other utilities.

"We have to get this stuff somewhere, and it doesn't come cheap," Imhof said.

About a dozen other high-voltage transmission lines are in the planning or construction phase across the Northwest.

While the existing grid already allows for the flow of electricity between Western states and British Columbia, many of the existing transmission lines are nearing capacity. Some aren't configured to integrate wind power, said the Gallatin Group's Lavey.

Congested transmission lines aren't unique to the Northwest, Avista's Imhof added.

"There's a nationwide need to upgrade the grid," he said. "People are using more energy, and we know that demand is going to grow more in the future."

Contact Becky Kramer at (208) 765-7122 or by e-mail at beckyk@spokesman.com.

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