The Obama Adminitration’s announcement a while back to “streamline” the permitting process for 7 major electricity transmission lines in an effort to “create jobs” and promote wind energy is problematic. While the projects would benefit proposed wind farms, the fact is that existing coal-fired and nuclear power plant infrastructure appear to be the big winners. And at least two of the projects get to charge consumers hundreds of millions of dollars in rate incentives authorized by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 under the expectation that investors needed the extra money because of the implicit difficulty in getting the necessary approval to build.
A recent analysis by Roger Bezdek in the February 2012 issue of Public Utilities Fortnightly argues that new transmission needs to link proposed new large scale, centralized renewable energy projects (mandated through a proposed federal Renewable Energy Standard, under Bezdek’s assumptions) “could enable expansion of coal-fired generation by the equivalent of about 30 new coal plants by 2020,” mainly because the added transmission, coupled with coal’s continued price advantage, will make more existing coal capacity available, since “utilization of the existing coal fleet is currently about 72 to 74 percent. However, this can be increased to about 85 percent if there’s enough transmission to transmit the added coal generation to the load at nights and weekends.” Now, Bezdek’s analysis is not specifically applied to the “fast-tracked” 7 transmission projects, but you get the idea.
For a swirling debate that often pits the Chamber of Commerce and multinational corporations against Obama on regulations, it seems strange that Obama’s proposed gutting of transmission siting regulations has received a collective yawn from environmentalists and many in the pro-regulation community. These days it appears as though Obama governs through press release, wrapping any initiative with “jobs” or “green energy” no matter how tenuous the claim. Touting transmission line projects as vehicles to “create jobs” is not efficient, and a close analysis of the transmission lines clearly show that coal-burning power plants will be the big winners.
Siting towering, multi-state transmission lines has been the traditional job of states. But with NIMBYism giving rise to NOPE (Not on Planet Earth) – due mainly to millions of new people now living in broad swaths of These United States where once only cows and tumbleweeds reigned, as evidenced by an increase of population density of 105% between 1950 and 2010 (from 42.6 people per sq mile to 87.4), it can get awfully difficult for corporations to build large projects sometimes. Not that that’s a bad thing. Unlike China, which can forcibly remove 1.3 million people to make way for giant energy projects at the drop of a hat, here in America we have the 5th Amendment protecting us.
In contrast, we ought to be focusing on YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard!) microgrid projects serving rooftop solar.
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 supposedly granted the Federal Energy Regulatory Commisison (FERC) new “backstop” authority to site transmission lines, in Section 1221, but only if states “withheld approval for more than one year.” But in 2009 the 4th Circuit rejected FERC’s interpretation of this authority. Courts also struck down FERC’s Section 368 authority to establish National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors that would have usurped existing state authority. However futile FERC’s efforts have been, Section 1221 of EPAct 2005 designated the Department of Energy as the “lead agency for purposes of coordinating” transmission projects on Federal lands. And it is this Section 1221 authority that Obama is utilizing with these 7 projects, as all cross major chunks of the public’s land.