How DOE is leveraging federal authority to ease transmission development
The Dept. of Energy is exercising powers that allow it to speed siting and construction of interstate transmission
No matter what fuel mix the U.S. moves toward in the coming years, one thing seems certain: The nation will need more transmission.
Last April, the North American Electricity Reliability Corporation (NERC) estimated the U.S. would need to add about 7,000 miles of transmission to meet the goals of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut carbon emissions from the power sector by 32% by 2030.
Clean numerical estimates like that are more difficult these days, following the Supreme Court’s judicial stay on the regulatory package in February. But taking into account multi-year extensions of renewable energy tax breaks passed at the end of last year, renewable energy deployment is expected to increase markedly, stimulating more demand for power lines to deliver the electricity to population centers.
For years, the Obama administration has spoke about the need for an enhanced national transmission network to enable the shift a lower-carbon energy supply. But now its Department of Energy (DOE) is acting, taking advantage of a decade-old law to help companies get steel into the ground.
For the first time, the DOE is exercising a privilege granted to it by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to partner with independent transmission developers to facilitate the siting and construction of high-value power lines to link the nation’s renewable energy development with centers of electricity demand.
Together, DOE and the developer, Clean Line Energy Partners (CLEP), will use federal powers granted in Section 1222 of the Act to complete the Plains & Eastern Clean Line, a $2 billion, 705-mile, high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission system.
When completed, the project will enable the connection of 4,000 MW of Oklahoma and Texas wind capacity with load centers in Tennessee, Arkansas, and the wider Southeast.
“Moving remote and plentiful power to areas where electricity is in high demand is essential for building the grid of the future,” DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz said in a statement announcing the department’s action last month.
The agreement represents a “major milestone” for CLEP because “we know the route and we have the authority to build,” Michael Skelly, the company founder and president, told Utility Dive. “We expect development to accelerate now. We would like to be in construction by the end of 2017 but that means we have a lot of work to do.”
Announcement of the project approval was welcomed by the transmission industry, which for the first time will be able to use federal siting powers under the 2005 law to overrule state and local objections to transmission development along the line’s route. But critics in the path of the project, who say the move infringes on private property rights and constitutes an overreach from the federal government, have vowed to fight on.
Following the DOE’s backing of the Plains & Eastern project, transmission industry interests endorsed the department’s commitment to expanding cross-state power line development.
“The decision is firmly within the four corners of Section 1222,” said James Hoecker, a former chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) who is now counsel for the WIRES Group, a transmission advocacy organization.
DOE’s participation, the last approval required by CLEP for the Plains & Eastern project, provides federal support for the developer’s lengthy efforts to secure rights-of-way (ROWs) for the line across private property along the four-state route.
Texas, Oklahoma, and Tennessee regulators granted CLEP the ability, if necessary, to compel landowners into cooperation through eminent domain powers, with fair compensation and due process.
“Any developer would rather reach a negotiated agreement. That’s why we offer what we believe is attractive compensation for landowners,” CLEP’s Skelly said. “But there are situations where it is necessary to have that [eminent domain] authority. We hope to use it as little as possible.”
The Arkansas Public Service Commission (PSC), however, reached a different decision, saying it did not have the authority to grant an independent developer such powers to name a transmission line route.