May 18, 2007

Riding the electricity superhighway

Nevada in the path of new power corridor

Las Vegas Business Press [Las Vegas, NV]

Today, a half-century after President Dwight Eisenhower created the federal interstate highway system to relieve traffic congestion, the federal government is applying Ike's solution to the nation's power grid.

Last week, the Department of Energy issued two draft National Interest Electric Corridor (NIEC) designations. It's an effort to set the utility industry on a path to modernize the nation's constrained and congested electric-power infrastructure.

Megan Barnett, a DOE spokeswoman, explains that the designation of National Corridors is a necessary first step in providing the federal government (through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) siting authority that would supplement existing state authority, in accordance with the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

In other words, if a utility is denied state approval to build a new transmission facility within the designated corridor, it could seek permission from FERC ... overriding state authorities.

The Mid-Atlantic Area National Corridor runs north-to-south from the southeast corner of New York State through eastern Pennsylvania, and along the Atlantic Seaboard toward Maryland and the District of Columbia.


The Southwest Area National Corridor covers practically all of Southern California, part of southwest Arizona and practically all of Clark County. This concerns local environmental officials, who question whether the corridor threatens some of the nation's last great open spaces, including the Mojave National Preserve.

"Reliability is one thing but two of the main reasons for the corridors going into Nevada are both very bad from an environmental perspective," said Launce Rake, communications director at the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

Rake explains that much of the power that would be transmitted along beefed-up transmission lines running through the Southwest Area National Corridor would come from coal power plants proposed for White Pine County by LS Power and Sierra Pacific Resources "which would pump soot into the air over the Great Basin.

"In addition, he explained, the biggest power consumer would be the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which plans to take water from central Nevada and western Utah, a move that Rake says would defoliate a huge part of the Great Basin.

"We don't need the growth down here and we don't need environmental destruction up there," Rake complained. "Like the electricity grid itself, these issues are interconnected. Those who work for real estate developers and coal-burning, greenhouse-gas producing electric companies are working against the best interests of the American and Nevada public."


But DOE and utility industry officials say something must be done to update the nation's overtaxed transmission grid, to satisfy the nation's ever-increasing appetite for more and more electrical power. They point out that average American homes are nearly 50 percent larger than those built in the 1970s. The modern high-tech age of huge, flat-screen TVs and the explosive growth of computer equipment all combine to draw more and more power from the electric industry. "It's a reliability issue," Barnett said.

The North American Electric Reliability Corp., an industry self-regulatory organization, estimates demand for electrical power will increase nearly 20 percent in the next decade, but mileage of transmission lines will increase only seven percent.

"Despite increasing demand, we have (paradoxically) experienced a long period of underinvestment in power generation, power transmission and infrastructure maintenance," Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman said last week, adding that the nation's power grid is becoming more susceptible to such natural disasters as hurricanes and ice storms, as well as the threat of terrorism.


The designation is supported to different extents by several utility groups, including the American Public Power Association.

"It is extremely difficult to site transmission lines," said Madalyn Cafruny, the association's communications director. "The APPA strongly supported the portion of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that created the designation of National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors. (We) advocated that a more streamlined, predictable siting process (which) gives the federal government limited authority to ensure the siting of interstate transmission lines is essential to achieving a more robust transmission grid.

"Public power systems own about 8 percent of the nation's high-voltage transmission lines, so many are transmission-dependent and rely upon services provided by other utilities, Cafruny explains.

Ironically, while the corridor runs though Southern Nevada, one local utility expects that power running through it to be diverted from the Silver State to California.

"It really doesn't affect us here very much," said Faye Anderson, spokeswoman for Sierra Pacific Power. "Our state has been very supportive in locating transmission lines to serve the load and benefit our customers but this is really a California issue. The DOE's report doesn't mention Nevada at all."


But Stan Johnson, tasked to manage situational awareness and infrastructure security for NERC, disagrees. "The Southwest Corridor will benefit your area as well as California," Johnson said. "This is a whole-area issue, not just California. Just look at your population growth. You're going to need more infrastructure to carry the electricity and the more capacity to transmit the power, the less it costs.

"Still, some utility officials in Nevada say a better solution to the nation's power infrastructure problems would be the improvement of transmission systems on a regional basis.

"Eisenhower started the interstate freeway program that has helped to fuel the economy of America for the past 60 years. An interstate transmission system (on a regional basis) that takes us from a system of single-lane roads would help everyone," said Delmar Leatham, general manager of Overton Power District.

Such a system would allow better access for smaller power companies, like those throughout rural Nevada, Leathem explains. "Hey, we can all drive on the interstate regardless of the car we own."