March 24, 2008

'Corridors' of power are finding resistance

Hal Wells / Los Angeles Times
If the Energy Department is allowed to proceed with its grid project, some of the transmission lines stand a chance of being routed through Joshua Tree National Park. Such prospects have drawn lawsuits from environmental groups.

The nation's electric grid needs beefing up, but critics say a federal plan is too big and ignores clean energy sources.

By Judy Pasternak, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- There is wide agreement that the nation needs to upgrade the aging system that delivers electricity from power plants to consumers -- a grid that is already overtaxed and facing a 43% increase in demand over the next two decades.

But opposition is growing to the way the Bush administration has interpreted Congress' instructions to improve the grid.

The Energy Department is making it easier to build high-voltage transmission lines in vast stretches of the country, but objections have been raised by environmentalists, lawmakers and states that would lose the right to veto power lines within their borders.

The 2005 Energy Policy Act gave the Energy Department the right to designate "national interest electric transmission corridors" where the federal government can step in to permit transmission towers and wires that have been rejected or delayed by states. In the corridors, the U.S. can also condemn private land along a power line route.

Now the department has set up two corridors that are actually huge swaths of territory. The western zone includes Southern California and western Arizona. The eastern zone cuts from New York to Virginia and inland across large sections of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio.

Transmission of electricity is critically congested at the core of each zone, the Energy Department said. The federal authority in the corridors is already attracting interest from utilities, including Southern California Edison.

But critics say that the zones are too large and were drawn to favor power from plants that run on fossil fuels rather than cleaner sources such as wind, solar and heat from the Earth's interior, which also will need transmission if they are to be part of the country's energy mix. The chosen contours of this plan, they say, will exacerbate global warming and pollution.

They have also cited the potential effects on farmland and natural habitats. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has listed the eastern zone as one of its "11 most endangered places" because of Civil War battlefields, stretches of the Appalachian Trail, designated historic districts and scenic rivers that could fall within power line paths.

But administration officials like to compare their initiatives to President Eisenhower's creation of the interstate highway system, and they say it will help keep energy prices down.

"The grid is the ultimate balancing act. The larger the grid is, the easier it is to balance," said Kevin Kolevar, an assistant secretary of Energy who directs the 3-year-old Office of Electricity Delivery and Reliability.

More than 157,000 miles of high-voltage wires in the U.S. shoot electricity to areas where the energy is needed. But the electrical grid as currently constituted is really four separate regional sets of wires, with few connections between them.

Additions to this infrastructure have been slow, with only 668 miles of interstate transmission built since 2000. Each state makes a separate decision on its part of the route.

Kolevar said the new zones were large to allow for flexibility in determining the sites for the lines, so that sensitive areas could be avoided. As for fossil fuels versus alternatives, the department is "generation-neutral. We really are," he said.

The crux of the problem lies with proposals for power lines that cross state borders, Kolevar said. States, he said, "can't take a confederate point of view and not consider the needs of their neighbors."

There is one escape hatch for states in the corridors, he said. When three or more states form a compact for transmission planning, the federal government will cede its authority to that regional group. "We need to see these states coming together, binding themselves to one another," he said.

Like others backing the federal zones, Kolevar cited a line running through Virginia and West Virginia that took 16 years to get approved. The national interest corridors are "a backstop" to speed up development, he said.

Southern California Edison was the first to look into taking advantage of the new backstop authority. Company representatives met with federal regulators last month about a 500,000-volt line it wants to build between the Palm Springs area and power plants near Phoenix that generate electricity using natural gas. Both ends of the line are in the Southwest Energy Corridor unveiled by the Energy Department in October.

California has approved the portion of the line within its borders, but Arizona's utility commissioners vetoed their part of the project last May because California hadn't built any new power plants of its own for decades.

One Arizona commissioner referred to the proposed line as "a 230-mile extension cord into Arizona." Another said, "I don't want Arizona to become an energy farm for California," adding that his state would get all of the pollution and none of the power.

Southern California Edison is exploring an appeal to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Commission officials said their approval would not be automatic, and they would consult with the states.

On the other end of the country, a Dominion Power executive testifying at a Virginia utility commission hearing pointedly refused to rule out going to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission if the state turned down its request to build a 65-mile 500,000-volt line through the countryside and into West Virginia and Pennsylvania. All three states are in the Mid-Atlantic Energy Corridor.

West Virginia's public service commission staff has already challenged the need for its section of the line, concluding that the regional grid operator has exaggerated the threat of blackouts by 2011.

Environmental groups have filed separate federal lawsuits against the designation of each national interest corridor. On Thursday, Virginia sued the Energy Department in the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee plans to hold hearings on transmission, and Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said he expected the corridors issue to come up.

Fifteen senators, including presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, requested the hearing. The 2005 energy act did not anticipate such large expanses of land being brought under federal control, they wrote.

The corridors were "the best thing we could think of," Bingaman said. "We're just now learning how it's going to work. We will look to see whether it's being implemented the way we intended."

But Nada Culver, senior counsel for the Wilderness Society, said the Energy Department failed to examine alternatives to a major, rapid buildup in transmission lines -- options such as building new and perhaps clean-source power plants, or plans to conserve energy. "Do you need them, or do you just want them?" she asked.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) agreed. "We all want a reliable grid, but let's get experts to put on the record what is needed," he said. The department also should get more public input before proceeding, Casey added: "This is pretty serious stuff and we need, at a minimum, due process."

Fifty-two of Pennsylvania's 67 counties are in the eastern national interest corridor, he said, "but there was just one public meeting, in Pittsburgh." Pittsburgh is near the state's western border.

This month, the Energy Department denied requests for new hearings on the interest zones, stating that "fair and ample opportunities" for comment had been provided.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) had a different criticism. He said his state, "the windiest in the country," should be considered a national interest area. Wind-energy resources are generally in parts of the country with few transmission lines.