WGA to tackle US transmission?

Don C. Smith

The western third of the USA offers abundant sources of wind and solar energy, given the appropriate transmission infrastructure. As the development of this infrastructure has not been vigorously pursued, the ‘bi-partisan’ Western Governors' Association (WGA) has stepped up to the plate.

In late January 2009, the US Western Governors' Association (WGA) issued an urgent plea to the leadership of the US Congress regarding the need to develop “the capability to transmit large amounts of geographically constrained, low-carbon electricity generation to distant population centres”. Underpinning the plea is the WGA's concern that despite enormous potential renewable energy development opportunities in America's west, the current transmission infrastructure will not move the power to where it is most needed (see ‘US wind focus’ within this issue for more in-depth information).

Simply put, the infrastructure significantly constrains the integration of additional renewable energy into utilities' generation portfolios, even if they are enthusiastic about increasing the percentage of renewables.

Bi-partisan approach

The significance of the WGA plea was particularly important in the context of the general working of American politics. When a bi-partisan legislative approach is agreed, legislative measures have much better chances of becoming law. On the other hand, when a measure is perceived (whether this is the case in reality or not) to be supported by only one political party, then legislative roadblocks are substantial. While President Barack Obama's campaign focused on changing the partisan-dominated political climate in Washington, the fact is that partisan political squabbling permeates the day-to-day work of the Federal Government.

Consequently, the WGA's bi-partisan nature makes its proposals particularly important. The WGA includes 19 Governors, from states stretching from Kansas in the east to California in the west – and every state in between. The Governors come from both major political parties, but aim to work together on issues of common interest to the west. The association includes influential Governors such as California Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, Alaska Republican Sarah Palin, and Kansas Democrat (and close advisor to President Obama) Kathleen Sebelius.

While it is true that the Governors spend most of their time in their home states, they also maintain regular and important lines of communication with their respective States' senators and congressmen and women. These congressional delegations do not, of course, report to the Governors. However, it is certain that the members of the respective delegations are extremely interested in legislation being supported by their own Governor.

Specifically, the WGA, which is chaired by Republican Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. of Utah and assisted by vice chair Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana, has informed Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that “a traditional approach to [transmission line] investment and siting will result in lines that are too small to move substantial amounts of power generated” in the west.

The WGA, through Govs. Huntsman and Schweitzer, pointed out that state public utility commissions – which retain authority in terms of investment and siting – “are frequently limited to judging the prudence of a proposed project based on the foreseeable benefits to the company's ratepayers.” Under this scenario, it is difficult for the companies to justify to the various state commissions the additional cost to ‘upsize’ a transmission line to meet long-term national renewable and climate change goals that are not yet operational.

The WGA proposal

Therefore, the WGA has asked Congress – and President Obama – to authorise federal payment for the incremental cost of building higher-capacity lines from geographically remote (in terms of energy demand), but also highly-favourable locations for renewable generation. The group has also asked that centres be identified “where we know future demand for transfer capacity will increase”.

The funding is crucial. Without financial assistance, the WGA said, lower voltage lines will be built. “This means that limited transmission corridors will be consumed by undersized lines and the economies of scale in transmission construction will be lost.”

In return, the Federal Government would hold the rights to the newly created, but not immediately used capacity. “This incremental capacity would be sold as the demand for transmission capacity from the renewable resource area increases,” the Governors said. Proceeds generated from the sales of incremental capacity would be paid to the Federal Government.

Meanwhile, the WGA has been active on other renewables-related issues. For example, last year the WGA urged the Federal Government to “establish an aggressive and achievable national greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal that will put the US on a path to contribute to global climate stabilisation.” While this policy position is not entirely clear in terms of specific goals, it does indicate that the WGA fully supports the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

If this issue is to get on America's political radar, the strategy of having bi-partisan support for renewables-related legislation cannot be over-emphasised. This is reflected in recent advice that the WGA provided to the new President: “Transforming our energy infrastructure and economy will require new policies, incentives, market mechanisms, and private-public partnerships. Most important, it will require a bi-partisan partnership that achieves a broad consensus among political leaders and with the American people.”

There is much that divides America's political parties. But ensuring that renewable energy be efficiently delivered from generation sites to utilities and then to end consumers should not be one of these divisions. Groups such as the bi-partisan WGA are likely to be key players in making sure that this crucial issue is addressed in a timely, thoughtful, and strategic manner. Partisan politics can and should be set aside, as the actions of the WGA vividly illustrate.

As the WGA has stated: “We must not repeat the mistakes of the past. We must have the collective political will and resolve to create and implement a long-term comprehensive energy policy despite short-term political and market fluctuations. The future of our nation depends on it.”

America's political leaders in Washington would be well served by paying close attention not only to the WGA's message but also to the Governors' bi-partisan approach. Ensuring that America's utilities can efficiently integrate more renewables into their energy portfolios is not solely a Democratic or Republican or Independent political issue. It necessarily, and rightly, involves all political parties.

About the author

Don C. Smith is renewable energy focus' US correspondent. He serves as Director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law & Policy graduate programme at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, and as Editor in Chief of Utilities Policy, a peer-reviewed journal focusing on the performance and regulation of utilities. He can be reached on +1-303-8871-6052.



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Energy efficiency  •  Energy infrastructure  •  Policy, investment and markets  •  Solar electricity  •  Wind power