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On the fast track to catching up on transmission

The Northwest power grid is changing – in large part to accommodate new forms of renewable energy.

The Northwest power grid is changing – in large part to accommodate new forms of renewable energy.

As part of a federal push to create jobs and update American infrastructure, the Obama administration announced today it will be accelerating the permitting and construction of three transmission line projects in the Northwest:

  • Idaho Power’s 300-mile Boardman to Hemingway transmission line, which would connect Boardman in northeast Oregon and Melba, Idaho.
  • Portland General Electric’s 210-mile Cascade Crossing Project, which would connect Boardman and Salem.
  • Idaho Power and Rocky Mountain Power’s 1,150-mile Gateway West project, which would connect Glenrock, Wyo., and Melba, Idaho.

The three projects are among seven Grid Modernization Pilot Projects announced today to benefit from a new streamlined federal permitting process.

Building new transmission lines is notoriously complicated because they involve so many different landowners and agency approvals.

But new transmission, as I’ve reported, is also key piece of the renewable energy puzzle and an area where the U.S. is falling behind the rest of the developed world.

Across the U.S., state renewable energy mandates are spurring more and more wind and solar projects faster than new transmission can be built to make sure that the variable energy in rural areas can reach the bulk of power users in cities.

In 2009, nine federal entities got together and agreed to speed up the permitting process. The seven projects announced today will be a test of whether the resulting federal Rapid Response Team for Transmission can get the job done faster.

“To compete in the global economy, we need a modern electricity grid,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a news release. “An upgraded electricity grid will give consumers choices while promoting energy savings, increasing energy efficiency, and fostering the growth of renewable energy resources.”

Part of Idaho Power’s case for the Boardman to Hemingway line is that there are new wind projects sprouting up in northeast Oregon, and there’s not enough transmission to get that power to customers.

According to the company’s 2009 Integrated Resources Plan, Idaho Power and Horizon Wind Energy have finished the first phase of the 101 megawatt Elkhorn Valley Wind Farm in Union County. But there’s only enough “solid transmission” to carry 66 megawatts of that power. When transmission lines are full, likely during the spring when there’s lots of hydropower being generated in the Northwest, 34 megawatts of wind power from the Elkhorn Valley project would be at risk of being curtailed.

Rich Bayless, technical director for an organization of transmission providers in the West called Northern Tier Transmission Group, said most of the projects on the table now are designed just to catch up with growth in power supply and demand.
“We haven’t built a lot of new transmission in quite awhile,” he said. “The problem is once you get them going it takes 5-10 years to get it built and constructed. And if you happen to have a big economic slump right in the middle of it, people want to delay the expenses. Utilities don’t want to pass the costs on in higher rates, and ratepayers don’t want to see their rates go up.”
There are several lines moving into construction now that will help reduce congestion in the transmission systemthat prevents wind energy from reaching customers as it’s generated, Bayless said. And several of the new pilot projects could help with that too.“There are new wind farms planned in Wyoming and Montana, and it all wants to go to markets where there are people that consume it and the prices of other generation are higher,” he said. “It all wants to go to the West Coast: Oregon, Washington, and California, mostly. … These new lines will help wind power get delivered where it can be used.”

Idaho Power Smart grid

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