Feds are transmission obstacles

By Kennedy Maize
When it comes to access for transmission lines to bring renewable power from where it is located to folks who can use it, who poses the biggest obstacles?
In the West, according to Pedro J. Pizarro, Southern California Edison’s vice president of power operations, a chief villain is Uncle Sam. Federal land agencies, Pizarro told the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission at a technical conference in early March, are the practical definition of “not in my back yard,” or NIMBY, approaches to high-voltage transmission.
Pizarro, outlining the efforts of SCE to bring renewables from where they can be turned into electricity to where people can use the power, told FERC, “One of the most significant hurdles is obtaining right-of-way permits over federal lands. In some cases, it takes many months and even years for necessary special use permits, even after a project’s environmental documentation has been approved, and even on existing rights of ways.”
While not a problem in the Eastern interconnection (where the prime issue is gaining access to private land), grid developers face major hurdles in the West. Much of the territory that remote renewable generating resources must traverse to bring their energy to market crosses federal land. The agencies involved are multiple, including the U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, and, on occasion, the Interior’s Park Service and Bureau of Reclamation.
The federal agencies have myriad laws they must implement in granting access to federal lands for electric transmission systems. These include – far from a definitive list – the Federal Land Policy Management Act (FLPMA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and a host of lesser environmental and regulatory challenges including the laws protecting raptors, migratory birds, wild horses and burros, historic preservation, guaranteeing surface mine reclamation to original conditions, and so it goes.
It’s not easy for the natural resource agencies to act with any kind of speed on requests for transmission line easements, given the requirements of the laws that govern their activities. But transmission developers need speedier access if they are going to move projects expeditiously. What to do?
That puts the policy bulls-eye on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Pizarro said in his testimony, “Since much of the Western renewable resources require transmission traversing federal lands, FERC can play a major role in facilitating its sister agencies review of these projects, so that timely right of way permits are issued.”
There is a considerable irony here. Much of the attention on the inability to site interstate transmission under the obviously failed terms of the 2005 Energy Policy Act has focused on overcoming state opposition, on the assumption that the problem would be bringing coal-fired power and new nuclear to load centers. The large majority of renewable resources are located in areas where the high-voltage transmission lines will have to pass over federal land. As best I understand it, the 2005 act wiffs on that issue.
FERC has a lot of experience working with the federal resource agencies at the Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture. It’s not been a pleasant experience for the energy regulators. In the 1980s, Congress, led by then-House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) gave the federal natural resources agencies considerable power to derail FERC decisions on hydropower.
Some experienced analysts suggest that hydro law and the ensuing interpretations give federal resource agencies the practical ability to forestall FERC decisions on siting power lines on federal lands.
So large interstate power lines designed to connect major renewable resources in remote areas to urban loads could be hostage not to the states, or to FERC, but the Interior and Agriculture departments.
Interconnecting renewable resources into the grid so they can reach consumers may take new legislation from Congress. That’s not an optimistic outlook.