Speak First, Then Build: Renewable Energy and Transmission Lines

SUGAR LAND–July 6, 2010–Written by John Egan for Industrial Info Resources (Sugar Land, Texas)–Climate change, renewable energy, interstate transmission lines, and coaching the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team were among the top items discussed when governors from Western states assembled in Whitefish, Montana, last week for their annual Western Governors’ Association (WGA) conference.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who has coached teams to 11 NBA championships, was the event’s keynote speaker. He fondly recalled his years as a child in Montana and said the area’s natural beauty was the reason he chose to live there as an adult.  The coach, who recently agreed to return to coach the Lakers in the 2010-11 season, urged the governors to take the steps necessary to preserving the West’s natural beauty: “We call this the last best place on earth, but we don’t know how long it will last.”

Turning from basketball to energy, the governors explored ways to fast-track the siting and construction of interstate transmission lines to bring energy from remote areas to urban centers across the region.  Siting transmission lines and building renewable generation are inextricably linked, the governors said.  “We don’t develop any of the alternative energy sources until we get transmission,” said Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D), who chairs the nonpartisan WGA.  “You can’t put electricity in a bottle and send it down the river.”

His comments were echoed by Washington Governor Chris Grenoire (D): “If we can’t get it anywhere, what good does (windpower) do?”

Because much of the land in the West is owned by federal government agencies and Native American tribes, proposed transmission lines must go through a lengthy public comment process.  New lines are often opposed by environmentalists and some property owners, who are prepared to file suit to block construction of new lines.

Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who has made several alternative-energy investments, said, “Environmentalists are pretty good at finding problems, but they are pretty terrible at funding solutions,” according to the Associated Press.

Nine Western states have renewable portfolio standards (RPS), and several states have enacted limits on carbon dioxide emissions or set up renewable energy zones (REZs).  But experts agree that few states will be able to meet their RPS requirements or fulfill the goals of their REZs without major additions and operational changes to the West’s interstate transmission system.

WGA and the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, the organization overseeing the region’s transmission system, have been awarded $26 million in federal grants to plan for new transmission infrastructure to meet the goals of future electricity demand, resource diversity, environmental concerns, and energy efficiency.

To speed the development and approval of renewable energy projects and interstate transmission projects, the WGA released the “Renewable Energy Transmission Roadmap” during the group’s three-day conference.  “One of the most frustrating issues that developers can face is the daunting process of understanding how to facilitate and expedite transmission siting and permitting,” Gov. Schweitzer says in the preface to the roadmap.  “By providing even this basic information, especially to small and medium developers, we can bridge the disconnect between project conception and delivery of critical power to load centers.”

The 13-page roadmap, which will be updated as needed and is available at the WGA website,, notes that renewable energy “is becoming an increasingly large part of state energy portfolios in the West.  However, the continued expansion of renewable energy is primarily dependent on the availability of transmission.  Development of a renewable energy project in the Western United States is formidable and requires interested parties to navigate a path of complex federal, state and local regulatory approvals and permits.”

Though difficult, the WGA report says that well planned renewable energy and transmission projects “can achieve licensing and permitting on schedule and on budget.”  Building adequate lead time into a project proposal, and conducting and updating fatal-flaw and critical-path analyses, are essential to project success.

The WGA roadmap concludes that “communication, communication, communication” lies at the heart of successful renewable energy and transmission projects in the West.  “Developers should engage in preliminary dialogues with the environmental community early during the project planning process, before the start of any formal study process,” the roadmap says.  “An early public/stakeholder/community/landowner outreach process will also provide the developer with information regarding key issues of concern, which may not be self-evident or obvious, but are nonetheless powerful drivers of the content and timing of environmental permitting and licensing processes.  Early outreach and identification of community concerns may avoid costly delays due to community opposition.”

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