Bill White is Senior Vice President at David Gardiner and Associates
Meeting steep carbon reduction goals will require profound and rapid changes in the ways we generate, distribute, and consume electricity. Energy efficiency, distributed generation, demand response, smart grid upgrades, and utility-scale renewable resources will all be needed at unprecedented levels.
Enormous amounts of high quality renewable resources are now trapped in remote regions without electric transmission service. Connecting these resources to population centers is potentially one of the cheapest ways to massively and rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the electric power sector. Unfortunately, the existing framework for planning, developing and financing transmission infrastructure was never designed to address a challenge of this scale, pace, and scope. Transmission planning authorities are too geographically fragmented and near-term focused to even consider – much less pay for and site – a reliable integrated transmission grid capable of delivering remote renewable resources to consumers.
Legislation establishing participatory and transparent electric transmission planning at a national scale has been introduced in the Senate to overcome this barrier to achieving national policy goals and maximizing broad societal value. The American Clean Energy Leadership Act (ACELA; S.1462), passed by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in June of 2009, directs the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to oversee broad scale regional planning processes for new transmission lines. The broad regional plans would be produced through collaborative efforts of utilities, transmission planners and a wide array of stakeholders to ensure full consideration of alternatives, incorporate local knowledge, and ultimately produce more effective and confidence-inspiring plans.
Climate and energy policies alone – such as a carbon cap and a national renewable electricity standard – cannot be expected to promote an efficient and strong renewable energy industry if they are layered on top of a balkanized and dysfunctional transmission planning system. Such an approach is likely to perpetuate market barriers and force reliance on higher cost resources. An open and fair framework for planning, paying for, and siting essential clean energy infrastructure, such as the one proposed in S.1462, is a necessary part of the solution.