Upgrade for the US grid


It is no secret that the availability of transmission lines that could carry planned utility-scale solar energy generation to urban centers in the United States is still lacking in many areas, particularly the Southwest, where solar insolation is the highest. Now state utility commissions and transmission system operators in the region – and especially in California – are grappling with the issue of who should pay for new or updated transmission lines, and how quickly. The siting of new lines is also a complicated matter, considering potential damage to endangered species and sacred Indian artifacts.
One reason that the U.S. transmission system is so antiquated is that the prices paid in the past to private landowners for public use of their land have often been at sub-market levels, helping to foster the Not-In-My-Backyard, or NIMBY, syndrome. In states where the right of eminent domain exists, landowners have little bargaining leverage, though.
In California, where unemployment stands at 10.9 percent, transmission line development is seen as a good bet for job creation in the run up to 2020, when the state’s renewable portfolio standard is required to hit the 33 percent mark.
“There are many people who ask whether California is really going to make the 33 percent RPS. There are lots of different generation and transmission projects in the West positioned to help California meet it, but as a rule, the state’s policy analysts take the tone that, ‘We can manage it on our own without renewables imports,’” complains one regional transmission line developer in California who asked not to be identified.

Federal assistance

Generally, the more layers of government involved in a transmission project, the more difficult the total permitting will be. However, a memorandum of understanding signed in January, between California and the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) will facilitate the development of transmission lines serving renewables in the state.
In a recent project, for example, the DOI helped assure that the Imperial Solar Energy Center West transmission project, in California’s Imperial Valley, which would serve a new 250 MW solar project, would receive “extensive environmental review and mitigation measures.” Developed by Light Source Renewables, the project was approved by the DOI’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in August 2011, and will cross BLM land to an Imperial Valley substation.
One market source suggests that California represents 80 percent of the market for renewable energy generated in the Western states. California expects to spend some US$15.7 billion in building new transmission lines to meet its current renewable energy goal of 33 percent of total capacity by 2020, led by the California Independent System Operator (CAISO).
“The major transmission projects approved by [CAISO], under current conditions and planning assumptions, will be able to carry the influx of renewable resource generation on the independent system operator (ISO) grid,” says Steven Greenlee, a spokesperson for California ISO.
Nationally, the Brattle Group, based in Boston, has suggested that close to US$85 billion needs to be spent on upgrading the U.S. grid by 2015, and that higher state renewable portfolio standards may push that value to US$130 billion nationwide over the following decade.

Ranking solar for transmission

California has been a U.S. leader in driving up the renewable – and particularly the solar – component of utility generating portfolios. The state has been working diligently toward its nation-leading RPS, which will require an estimated 15 to 20 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2020. Indeed, the CAISO projects in its new 2012-2016 strategic plan forecast that “between now and 2020, wind and solar generation will quadruple within the ISO-managed grid.” Some analysts suggest that California has focused on generating projects so intensely that now “the capacity of the renewable projects currently in the CAISO interconnection queue exceed California’s entire forecasted load in 2020 and hence far exceed the amount of new capacity needed for the investor-owned utilities and other load-serving entities to meet their 33 percent renewable obligation by 2020,” observes William Kissinger, a partner in the law firm of Bingham McCutchen LLP, in San Francisco.
The mid-term CAISO strategic plan also notes that, “These new resources should be developed in the most cost-effective and environmentally responsible way for California consumers. Renewable developers have already proposed over 57,000 MW of new generation for the ISO grid, but our system’s current peak requirement is only about 50,000 MW. Integrating the right amount of new resources requires sophisticated engineering analyses and poses significant policy questions about who pays for what.” One transmission line developer who asked not to be identified, complained that current California Governor Jerry Brown, unlike his predecessor, has instituted a policy of encouraging transmission projects that maximize in-state jobs, at the exclusion of or slower pace for more regional projects that may be necessary in the future to meet the 33 percent target.
Nonetheless, Governor Brown is placing an emphasis on transmission line modernization. His Clean Energy Jobs Plan mandates that the California Energy Commission “should ‘fast?track’ (transmission) projects based on their anticipated ability to deliver clean energy to market. The permitting time for these projects – which now can take six to eight years – should be dramatically reduced, and in no case be longer than three years.” The task of planning transmission lines in California is complex. In Imperial Valley, CAISO has sifted through 500 proposed interconnection projects to identify 27 that could bring close to 57,000 MW of renewables to the grid. CAISO expects a dozen transmission projects previously identified as policy-favored and economically favored that would serve renewables and still can come online by 2018. “We are well into streamlining and aligning our generator interconnection process with our transmission planning process that creates planning efficiencies and flexibility to meet future needs,” says CAISO’s Greenlee. As a result, the state may be focusing more closely on transmission lines that will service future solar and other renewable energy development, rather than lines that serve fossil fuel generators.
A recent proposal within the California Public Utilities Commission would “limit the total volume of power purchase agreements executed by the independent system operators to projects of high value and viability without triggering unnecessary reliability or deliverability upgrades.” The proposal, by Mark Ferron, one of the five Commissioners of the California Public Utilities Commission, will be voted on by the end of this year. This measure would limit the impact of bearing the cost of new transmission lines to those ratepayers benefiting most from the new solar or other renewable energy source plants.

Expanding the network

One CAISO strategy for the expansion of transmission lines in its network is the extension of its footprint to include more ISO members. In December, for example, CAISO approved Citizens Sunrise Transmission LLC as a participating transmission owner in the network. Citizens Sunrise is a wholly owned subsidiary of Citizens Energy Corp., a non-profit utility based in Boston.
Similarly, The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in December approved a bid by Valley Electric Association, Inc., of Pahrump, Nevada, to join CAISO. Valley Electric is expected to join CAISO by January 2013.
And an independent electricity balancing authority in California, the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), also signed agreements in July of last year for generator interconnections and transmission with CalEnergy Generation, 8minutenergy, Ormat Technologies and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “The resulting connections will raise IID’s transmission rating capacity by 1,000 MW. And another 1,600 MW of transmission line expansion is being studied,” says Joel Ivy, the interim energy manager for the authority, in El Centro. While the US$200 million IID improvements may take four years to complete, that pace is relatively rapid, Ivy suggests: the 500 kV lines needed between other regions of California might take twice as long to plan and build, he says.

The Rapid Response Team

The Obama administration in December announced it would accelerate the permitting and construction of seven proposed electric transmission lines situated in multiple areas around the country. Affected states for the seven transmission projects include: Arizona; Colorado; Idaho; Minnesota; New Mexico; Nevada; Wyoming; Utah; New Jersey; Oregon; Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
At the time of the announcement, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said, “An upgraded electricity grid will give consumers choices while promoting energy savings, increasing energy efficiency, and fostering the growth of renewable energy resources.” To streamline the projects, the government formed a new Rapid Response Team for Transmission, comprising nine federal agencies. Among participating agencies are: the Department of Agriculture; the Department of Commerce; the Department of Defense; the Department of Energy; the Department of Interior; the Environmental Protection Agency; the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation; and the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Among these seven projects, the US$3 billion Trans West Energy project is a 725 mile, 600 kV, direct current transmission line with 3,000 MW of capacity that will deliver energy from Wyoming wind farms to urban areas in Arizona, California and Nevada. The project is privately owned by the Anschutz Corp. Since much of the energy from the nation’s new transmission lines being built over the next decade will head toward California, line focus in the Southwest is key to the national grid upgrade.
One Southwest transmission line expected to be completed this year that will carry solar energy from the desert about 150 miles west into Los Angeles is San Diego Gas & Electric’s US$1.3 billion Sunrise Powerlink project. The project won approval in December, but environmental challenges continue.
Another California-focused project is Southern California Edison’s (SCE) proposed Eldorado to Ivanpah Transmission Line Upgrade Project. Construction would include a new substation in San Bernardino County, and replacement of lower voltage lines with 220 kV lines in Eldorado. The Ivanpah transmission project will serve Brightsource’s Ivanpah solar facility – which has a US$1.6 billion DOE loan guarantee – as well as serve the proposed US$2.7 billion Brightsource Hidden Hills solar plant.
Similarly, SCE’s Devers-Palo Verde Number Two, worth US$537 million, will bring 170 miles of new 500 kV lines in Southern California from North Palm Springs to Blythe, and from Romoland to North Palm Springs. Since the project will follow the path of Interstate 10 and existing power lines, it won environmental approval from the National Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club.
SCE expects to spend US$21.5 billion over a five year period in upgrading distribution and transmission lines that will help it meet its renewable energy portfolio requirement.
A more regional grid enhancement in California is coming from San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s (PG&E) Central California Clean Energy Transmission Line Project. The 500 kV tower line would begin at Buttonwillow, west of Bakersfield, and would end at the existing PG&E Gregg Substation or a new substation northeast of Fresno.
One less fortunate project cancelled in 2010 was the US$800 million Green Path North, which would have linked Los Angeles with Central California, until environmental opposition ended the deal.

Mitigating environmental impacts

Mitigating environmental impacts to solar transmission projects often requires the purchase and enhancement of a separate piece of land that mirrors the project footprint. The mirrored parcel is then set aside as a preserve for the species that might be endangered by the project. Last year, 13 commercial-scale solar projects gained U.S. DOI approval by securing mirrored parcels, says the DOI’s Bureau of Land Management.
In one such recent case, Rice Solar Energy, LLC, a subsidiary of SolarReserve, of Santa Monica, will build a 150 MW tower-based thermal solar facility on 1,410 acres near Blythe, in Riverside County, California. The group will also build an aboveground 230 kV transmission line that crosses eight miles of land administered by the BLM, prior to connection with the Western Area Power Administration’s Parker-Blythe Number Two transmission line. SolarReserve will be required to purchase and enhance 1,522 acres of land to compensate for the potential impact to desert tortoise habitat on the land that the solar project will cover.
In some transmission planning areas, like California’s Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan area, which covers much of the state southeast of Los Angeles, the state commission is seeking to locate potential renewable energy projects more synergistically, “so we don’t go chasing solar and wind all around the desert,” says California Energy Commissioner Karen Douglas, in Sacramento.

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