Transmitting the Clean Energy Future

Supreme Court dashes hopes for federal transmission siting

An older transmission power track and power line stands tall against a Kansas sunset north of Topeka, Kansas. Utilities are vying to build a new power system to stretch across the state that would give six times more capacity than the present systems. The upgraded systems will be needed to help fully harness wind power generation.  Another day, another bad Supreme Court move (see “High court unleashes tsunami of corporate cash with Citizens United Ruling“).  First-time guest blogger Richard W. Caperton has the story and analysis in this CAP repost.

The Supreme Court last week decided not to review a lower court ruling on electricity transmission, upholding states’ ability to deny permits for new transmission lines. This will allow states to prevent anyone””either the government or private businesses””from building new transmission lines. The United States needs these transmission lines. They would enable Americans to consume more clean energy by bringing it from wind- and solar-powered plants to homes around the country. And a report released last week by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that we need 20,000 new miles of transmission lines to move carbon-free wind energy from wind turbines to East Coast consumers alone. The United States can’t reap the benefits of clean energy if Americans can’t access it, and these developments reinforce the fact that climate and energy legislation must contain a comprehensive transmission proposal to effectively drive the transition to a clean energy economy.

Transmission lines are the backbone of the U.S. electric grid, carrying high-voltage electricity from where it’s generated to where it’s used, similar to the function of the interstate highway system. The interstate highway system was critical to the U.S. economy and national security in the 1950s, and a modern electric grid is in the same way vital to the United States today. Our electric grid dates from at least the 1960s and most of the pieces are at least 25 years old. New transmission will allow us to utilize new renewable electricity and reduce the coal fired electricity production responsible for a third of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution.

Transmission investment is a key to a country’s economic competitiveness, as well, which is why China is investing $217 billion in their electric grid between 2006 and 2010. New transmission has benefits in its own right, beyond broadening clean energy use. For example, new transmission would relieve electricity congestion that costs the eastern United States $16.5 billion each year and would create redundancies that are necessary to keep the electric grid active when one small part stops working. Building transmission lines is also a significant job creator. Studies of three comparable large-scale projects show that, on average, new transmission lines create about 14 jobs per mile of transmission, which means that building the 20,000 miles of new transmission we need could create 280,000 new jobs.

Unfortunately, only a handful of high-voltage transmission lines have been built in the last decade. In fact, electricity sales have gone up 20 percent since a landmark Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruling that restructured electricity markets in 1996, while the total amount of transmission to carry that electricity has gone up by just 8 percent. One of the biggest barriers to transmission construction is “siting,” or deciding exactly where transmission will be located. The 4th Court’s decision makes clear that we need new legislation to fix the siting problem that causes underinvestment.

As an example of siting difficulties for renewable energy, consider what Southern California Edison is going through to get solar electricity to southern California. The utility originally wanted to bring in solar power from Arizona, but Arizona regulators wouldn’t approve the project, so the utility is having to base the entire project within California. This points to the limitations of relying on state regulators for siting approval. Not only are state regulators relatively unfamiliar with conditions outside of their state; many of them also face institutional barriers to regional planning and siting. For example, state regulators are often legally bound to only consider costs and benefits within their state, which makes it exceptionally difficult to build transmission across a state that hosts neither the generation nor the consumption.

It is important to understand exactly what the Supreme Court decision means. The 4th Circuit Court’s decision did not conclude that the federal government can­t have a significant role in siting. Rather, it decided that current law, which comes out of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, doesn­t give FERC the authority to approve a transmission project that a state regulatory commission has already denied. This is sometimes referred to as “backstopping” authority for FERC. This hinges on the EPAct­s language, which gives FERC siting authority in certain cases where a state has “withheld approval for more than 1 year after the filing of an application.” The 4th Court simply ruled that a state’s denial of an application doesn’t mean that the state has “withheld approval.” In other words, the federal government can not approve a transmission project if a state has denied the request, but it can if the state has withheld their approval for at least one year.

This is a narrow ruling that reaffirms that changes in the law are essential to make it clear that FERC has backstop authority if states fail to act on important proposed transmission projects. Importantly, the court lays out various scenarios in which FERC can exercise siting authority and makes it clear that they­re only ruling on this specific issue: FERC does have siting authority, but the specific language in EPAct doesn’t give FERC the ability to overrule state regulators.

In CAP’s report “Wired for Progress 2.0,” we proposed a hybrid siting system, in which FERC would lead the process, but states would be able to place conditions on permits and provide guidance on decisions. State regulators are much more familiar with state and local conditions than FERC, and this can guide where transmission should be located. But we need to plan for future transmission needs at the regional and even national level, which doesn’t fit with state regulators’ abilities.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory report released last week describes changes that need to be made to the electric grid to incorporate significant amounts of wind energy. We will need to build some 20,000 miles of new transmission lines at a cost of roughly $90 billion””depending on how much offshore wind energy is used””just for the eastern United States to get 20 percent of its electricity from wind generation by 2024.

American Wind Energy Association CEO Denis Bode had this to say about the importance of the NREL study: “This groundbreaking study demonstrates the major role wind energy can provide across the eastern U.S., reducing and stabilizing electricity rates while protecting the environment. It also shows the urgency of transmission reform for both onshore and offshore wind development, because if we wait any longer we will not have the lines soon enough to tap these cost-effective domestic renewable resources.”

Transmission reform is urgent. As Congress considers climate and energy legislation in the coming months, they need to remember to include language that creates a system for effectively siting new transmission. Such a system will likely combine FERC oversight with a clearly defined role for state regulators, balancing the need for regional and national planning with respect for state and local conditions.

Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) introduced a bill in March that follows this recommended approach. The Clean Renewable Energy and Economic Development Act gives FERC the authority to site projects that states have denied, but only if a specific set of criteria are met. This bill’s provisions address the 4th Circuit Court’s concern that state regulators are unable to do their jobs if FERC can simply override their decisions. It provides a role for states that could stand up to judicial scrutiny and gives FERC strong “backstopping” authority. These measures are just the types of reform we need for this urgent situation.

E&E subscribers can read a detailed news story on the Supreme Court decision here:

The expansion of electric transmission needed to meet U.S. goals for renewable energy and reliability will be up to Congress after the Supreme Court refused yesterday to review a lower court’s decision that narrowed federal authority over transmission siting.

The Supreme Court rejected a request from Edison Electric Institute (EEI) for review of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision that the 2005 energy law failed to authorize Federal Energy Regulatory Commission “backstop” authority for transmission siting if a state had denied a project. Many lawmakers, utilities and independent transmission companies say states are holding up a greater expansion of transmission.

“It’s pretty clear that the only solution to this is legislative,” said James Hoecker, outside counsel to the pro-transmission association WIRES.

“There is no hope under current law; if a state vetoes a project, they are perfectly able to do that. It is certainly not a recipe for an upgrade of the transmission system,” Hoecker said. WIRES supports states’ rights to site transmission, but it believes there should be federal backstop authority on every transmission proposal, Hoecker said.

Jim Owen, a spokesman for EEI, agreed that the decision curbs FERC’s already limited authority on transmission siting. “It’s a disappointing outcome that certainly it will reinforce the probability that we will have continued gridlock,” he said.

State regulators welcomed the Supreme Court’s rejection of EEI’s petition. “The decision is good news because it ensures that those who know the local and regional geographies and economies best — the state regulators — remain responsible for siting and planning transmission lines,” said Robert Thormeyer, spokesman for the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners [NARUC].

JR:  NARUC shouldn’t be endorsing this decision, even if it does retain power for them.  This is a national problem and needs a national solution.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee already moved to address the 4th Circuit’s decision and the need for transmission in the energy bill passed last June. A central part of the bill is a transmission planning, siting and cost allocation piece that provides even greater siting authority for FERC, although states would still have the ability to review the project first.

But the bill is currently intertwined with the fate of the climate bill, and many doubt the Senate has the political willpower to pass the controversial measure this session.

JR:  Yes, much pessimism on the bipartisan climate and clean energy bill (more on that soon), but the federal government needs to act on this, which is one more reason to act now.

13 Responses to Transmitting the Clean Energy Future

  1. anniversary says:

    Shows how flawed this system is. Ignorance, corruptness … can somehow the supreme court be forced to elect new members?

  2. Darryl Woodward says:

    The grids being built cause a lot of voltage drops over distance,.

    Transmission efficiency is improved by increasing the voltage using a step-up transformer, which reduces the current in the conductors, while keeping the power transmitted nearly equal to the power input. The reduced current flowing through the line reduces the losses in the conductor. According to Joule’s Law, energy losses are directly proportional to the square of the current. Thus, reducing the current (amperage) by a factor of 2 will lower the energy lost to conductor resistance by a factor of 4.

    Shipping coal by rail doesn’t reduce the BTU outoput from the coal.
    Shipping electric over distance does result in a reduction of power. We are already seeing wind running at 22.5% of capacity on the face plate and losing another 7-15% by transmission makes the cost even higher. I am sure we want to find and study all the costs in the system.

  3. Jake Reece says:

    Oh if we ship electricity from Texas to New England, most of the voltage drop would result in power loss?
    How much is lost per 100 miles?

  4. There are reasons to think this is not a completely negative outcome. One is that expedited transmission can as easily carry coal as wind or sun, and there have been huge concerns that expedited transmission from the Midwest to Northeast would actually increase coal power sales. I have heard this from environmental funders on a call in which I briefed them on smart grid technologies, which have been conflated with transmission but are actuually about much more including empowerment of localized options. Second, the decision drives to more localized alternatives, as groups like Institue for Local Self-Reliance have been advocating. Any distance implies a line loss. One study for high voltage DC from North Dakota toi Chicago by Bill Leighty found a 9 percent loss. That’s for the best technology. I’m not downing the idea we need more transmission. We do, with green standards to ensure we are not making it easier to ship coal. And let’s make sure we are not actually tipping the scales against distributed generation and demand management alternatives.

  5. “The interstate highway system was critical to the U.S. economy and national security in the 1950s”

    I am all for improving the electrical grid, but I don’t think we should support this by glorifying the Interstate Highway System.

    City planners overwhelmingly agree that it was a mistake to build interstate highways within cities, because it sliced up existing neighborhoods and encouraged sprawl. We would have been much better off if we had kept the freeways out of the cities and built boulevards and public transit instead.

    And, of course, the Interstate Highway System and the sprawl that it encouraged generated the excessive automobile use that is now a major cause of global warming.

    Long before the Interstate Highway System was completed, it was damaging the America’s economy and security. Remember the oil crises of the 1970s.

  6. anniversary says:

    A high-voltage, direct current (HVDC) electric power transmission system uses direct current for the bulk transmission of electrical power, in contrast with the more common alternating current systems. For long-distance distribution, HVDC systems are less expensive and suffer lower electrical losses. For shorter distances, the higher cost of DC conversion equipment compared to an AC system may be warranted where other benefits of direct current links are useful.

    The modern form of HVDC transmission uses technology developed extensively in the 1930s in Sweden at ASEA. Early commercial installations included one in the Soviet Union in 1951 between Moscow and Kashira, and a 10-20 MW system between Gotland and mainland Sweden in 1954.[1] The longest HVDC link in the world is currently the Inga-Shaba 1,700 km (1,100 mi) 600 MW link connecting the Inga Dam to the Shaba copper mine, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

  7. PurpleOzone says:


    These are the same guys that said a city can “buy” your house so a developer can build a shopping mall?

    But a facility essential to the common good can’t be put in place?

    The constitution gives the federal government a say in interstate commerce.

  8. Chris Dudley says:


    By the time coal makes it from the mouth of the mine to the generating plant, its energy returned on energy invested has dropped by half. This is because it takes energy to transport it. A good HVDC line loses 3% of power over 1000 km but coal that comes out of the mine with 2% of its embodied energy already spent on extraction loses another 2% over maybe only 500 km. We take the coal to the power plant largely because the big plants need to be next to rivers to get cooling. The mines are not always sited next to rivers.

    You don’t get to move coal around with no expenditure of energy.

  9. ChrisB says:

    Apparently our blogger is all for stringing expensive and unsightly high-voltage power lines around the countryside. People say they don’t like the way wind turbines look. What do they think of power lines?

    I’m pretty sure that converting electricity to hydrogen (and oxygen) where the electricity is generated, then recombining the hydrogen and oxygen in fuel cells located where the electricity is needed, is not much less efficient (for the whole country overall) than transmitting the electricity through power lines. It would solve the problem of unsightly power lines strung all over the landscape (pipelines are unnoticeable compared to power lines, and much cheaper for the same energy transmission capacity), and it would put the energy into a form that can be stored indefinitely, as well.

    The crucial question, then, and I’ve not seen anyone ask or answer it in all the talk about electrifying America, is how much of the electricity that’s generated way out in the middle of nowhere will be lost in the transmission grid? There’s a lot of talk about how efficient high-voltage DC power lines are, but how many consumers can use high-voltage DC? High-voltage DC lines conduct electricity efficiently for long distances, but it must then go into a grid of AC lines which distribute the electricity to the eventual users in a form they can use, and the fraction of input power lost in that grid are not trivial.

  10. Chris Dudley says:

    Chris (#9),

    Using hydrogen pipelines is much much less efficient than using transmission lines.

  11. anniversary says:

    9, see car/grid concepts, the emobile is perfect for load balancing.

    I posted the HVDC, because the european Desertec likley uses this, to connect europe and africa.

    A major concern here should be future climate predictions and mitigating them.
    Meaning put the cables or pipes into the earth.

  12. Chris Dudley says:

    It seems to me that the main goal is to transmit power from the Plains to the East. Plains states are unlikely to say no and the East is already interconnected so that existing right-of-ways will be used on an upgraded basis.

    There are HVDC solutions that run underground, so in the case of a resource that will not run out, putting in place a higher quality more durable infrastructure than stuff that is considered old at the age of 25 would make more sense than for the case of coal generation where resources may get scarce at the same time that the associated transmission wears out. Not Under My Back Yard does not seem to be such a huge movement.

    Well, unless it is tritium:

    But then, over reaching federal authority seems to be the problem rather than a solution in that case.

  13. ChrisB says:

    Chris Dudley (#10)
    Saying something doesn’t make it true. Can you give any proof that pipelines are not as efficient as electric transmission lines? Because it sure looks to me like the opposite is true, and by a long ways.

    If you’ll read my first comment (#9), I plainly say that no one has offered any definite numbers about how much energy is lost in the electric transmission grid. The only talk along those lines I’ve seen is that DC losses are less than AC, at least over long distances. I have seen one article (sorry, but I can’t remember where) which said that a large fraction, perhaps 25%, of the electric energy put into the distribution grid by generating plants is lost in the grid. Some of it is radiated as 60Hz electromagnetic radiation (the grid is so large that it makes a fairly efficient antenna at 60Hz)and some of it is lost to heating the wires.

    I suppose that generating plants have meters accurate enough that it should be possible to say how much total electric energy they put onto the grid with, say, 5% accuracy. And electric companies have meters on every place that uses electricity. How would the total of all the electricity billed for compare to the total of all electricity generated?