Building a wind farm is easy. Building transmission lines to move the power generated has proven to be a bit more difficult. Transmission line planners must deal with conflicting state and federal regulations, concerned land owners, shortsighted utility commissions, and more.
That was one message that came out of the recent AWEA Ohio Wind Energy Summit, in Columbus. The session, Transmission Issues in Ohio and the Region, dealt with just that. Jimmy Glotfelty, Executive Vice President at Clean Line Energy Partners, commented on the necessity and difficulty of building modern transmission lines. Glotfelty provided a look back at the history of the transmission grid build out in the US and the stop-start nature of the industry. He mentioned that in the 70s and 80s, there was a tremendous amount of transmission constructed as vertically integrated utilities built coal and nuclear plants across the U.S.
In 1992, Congress required the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to unbundle utilities’ transmission and generation functions, as a means to treat all generators the same. “The FERC rules that separated transmission planning from generation planning effectively stopped transmission growth for 20 years,” said Glotfelty. Utilities decided to put their limited capital resources into generation development as opposed to the transmission.
Glotfelty pointed out that the trend began to slowly change in the early 2000s as gas-fired power plants started becoming the generation resource of that decade and more transmission construction was needed to move that power to diverse markets.
Today, most transmission is being built for wind. “The point is, we continue in start-stop cycles. We are building today but we are still far behind in the amount of transmission needed to efficiently move resources to load. And power resources are getting farther from loads, whether for environmental issues or because the best wind resources are geographically isolated,” he said. With regard to his company, he admits it’s an expensive and long term business proposition to build high voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines. “The thesis of the company is getting the highest capacity wind power in the US and moving it east and west to load centers that need low-cost clean energy,” he said. The regulatory model for HVDC transmission lines is like a pipeline, it’s very easy to finance once you get the permits.
In today’s reality; “We have to get permits in 11 different states from 11 different siting regimes. Some cases encounter opposing regulations in different states because they each have different views of the transmission business. Different state laws define public need in different ways; some look at regional needs and some do not. There are also state-versus-federal issues. State and Federal regulators have been squabbling for years, and that slows progress,” said Glotfelty.
Sadly, he noted, the Supreme Court could have solved part of the state–federal dilemma in 2003 but they declined to rule on this point. “Their non-decision has kept us in limbo with the unanswered question: Who is responsible for regulating transmission: State or Federal agencies?
Another problem is that we tend to build just-in-time transmission, looking out only 10 years or so, and it takes that long to build. This is equivalent to building for tomorrow and not the future,” said Glotfelty.
So what’s the solution? “Leadership. We need it at the Federal, State, and local levels. Folks in a position of authority need to stand up and say it is not right to block transmission growth, and decide on policies move it forward,” he added.
Ohio State Sen. Cliff Hite is an example of good leadership, said Glotfelty, but not many states have such leaders. “And the more leaders we can get in the wind business like him who can stand up to his friends and still play baseball together afterwards, that’s what we need. Politics is too divisive in this day and age, but leadership is the key to solving a lot of the issues.”
Clean Line Energy