Federal efforts to speed development of interstate transmission-line projects in designated areas of need were hit hard in February, when a federal court decision sent planners back to the drawing board. Though applauded by environmental groups, the decision could negatively affect efforts to develop remotely located alternative-energy projects, which already face significant financial hurdles in coming to the market.

The decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affects two National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors (NIETCs) in the Southwest and Mid-Atlantic regions. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) established the corridors under terms of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct). Two of the three judges on the bench contended that the DOE overstepped the limits of the legislation by not doing due diligence regarding possible environmental damage within the boundaries of the two corridors.

The EPAct legislation was intended to cut short the sometimes years of challenges and debates that can tie up transmission-line projects that cross state lines. It directed the DOE to study congestion patterns within the nation’s transmission system and identify areas of special concern, where new capacity was needed most urgently. The DOE designated the two NIETCs in October 2007, and the 9th Circuit’s majority opinion states the agency failed to adequately consult with the affected states or to prepare either an environmental assessment or impact statement, as the legislation specified. As a result, the court declared both corridors to be invalid.

This decision follows a 2009 decision from the 4th Circuit Court, which denied the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s right to override a state’s denial of an interstate transmission line construction permit within a designated corridor, so long as that denial was issued within a year of the permit request.

This latest ruling doesn’t directly affect any currently proposed renewable--energy projects. In fact, as I noted in my September 2008 focus, “Down the Line," the corridors’ boundaries reflect transmission needs, not potential renewable-resource locations. However, as Shalini Vajjhala (then a fellow with Washington, D.C.-based Resources for the Future, an independent energy and environmental research group), said in an interview for that article, the Southwest corridor, particularly, passed through a region rich in renewable resources.

And, as Fred Yanney, a partner in the public utilities practice of Los Angeles-based law firm Fulbright & Jaworski, said, “Anything that enables transmission lines to be sited and constructed in a timely fashion is going to assist the development of renewable resources.” He then acknowledged the bind utilities are in to boost the percentage of renewable energy in their overall supply portfolios.

The Western Governors Association (WGA) is attempting to bring some order to the renewables planning process with its Regional Transmission Expansion Project. The group is working with the Western Electricity Coordinating Council to determine 10- and 20-year transmission needs within the Western Interconnection, based on current renewable portfolio requirements. The study also is considering the effect other complicating factors, such as carbon-emission restrictions or higher-than-expected electricity demand, could have on transmission needs.

“What we want to look at is a West-wide system that makes sense,” said Rich Halvey, the WGA’s energy program manager, noting that any such effort needs to be more than, simply, an engineering analysis. “It also has to make sense from a policy perspective.”

So, analysts will be comparing projected needs to current energy-development and transmission policies to see where policy shifts may be needed. This isn’t an easy task, given the competing priorities the many involved states bring to the table. California, for example, aims to meet its renewable portfolio standard requirements entirely with in-state resources, Halvey said. Montana and Wyoming, on the other hand, seek to become net exporters of renewable energy. Both goals could have an effect on region-wide transmission planning.

The goal is a comprehensive plan that addresses the gamut of environmental issues that opponents of the DOE’s NIETC designations say the federal government overlooked. For example, one task will include working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to map the overlap between areas where high--quality renewable resource zones intersect areas of critical wildlife concern.

“We’re interested in looking at this system regionally,” Halvey said, describing the difference between this approach and current, project-by-project planning procedures. “The larger issue for us is to say, in 2020 or 2030, this is the way we need to be looking at the system.”

And, as Yanney noted, if renewable energy is to make a significant contribution to electricity supplies, new lines will be needed.
“If transmission lines can’t be built, the green energy simply cannot be delivered,” he said. “Bottom line, without new transmission lines, it’s going to be difficult to develop significant new renewable-resource facilities.”


ROSS is a freelance writer located in Brewster, Mass. He can be reached at chuck@chuck-ross.com.