Cover Story: Laying it on the Lines

Laying it on the Lines

Reducing clean energy’s environmental footprint

The NW Energy Coalition is working to reduce the number and environmental impacts of new transmission projects across the West.

Large “central-station” renewable energy projects probably will be needed to replace coal plants and meet climate-protection goals. But some of the best potential sites for wind, solar and other renewable projects are far from the urban centers that need most of the power. Often, these remote sites have little or no access to existing transmission lines.

The Western Electricity Coordinating Council (WECC) is responsible for ensuring the reliability of the Western grid, which spans 14 states, two Canadian provinces and a small part of northern Mexico. Transmission planning has traditionally focused on ensuring reliability, with utilities dominating the process. But to help meet climate goals, the Obama administration provided funding to WECC to include non-utility interests and to focus on planning new transmission lines that could facilitate new renewable energy development.

When completed, the new WECC plan will grease the skids for a host of transmission projects throughout the region. WECC has no authority to actually build new lines, but projects consistent with the plan will receive faster and more certain regulatory approval.

Environmental advocates are justifiably concerned. Central-station energy projects and associated transmission can threaten ecosystems and species. On the other hand, unchecked climate change will profoundly affect those same ecosystems and drive untold numbers of species to extinction.

The NW Energy Coalition believes the best solution is building only those new renewable energy and transmission projects found to be truly necessary, and then siting and constructing them in the most environment-friendly manner.

It begins with reducing the need for new power. That means identifying and getting all the low-cost energy efficiency available, along with load (“demand-side”) management that cuts electric demand when it’s highest, and other smart grid technologies. Clean energy folks call these “non-wire” alternatives because they avoid the need for new transmission lines to serve new generation facilities.

Coalition senior policy associate Steven Weiss represents energy efficiency advocates and provides technical energy expertise to wildlife/wilderness advocates on WECC’s Scenario Planning Steering Group.  He plays a major role in bringing a new perspective to transmission planning.

“The paradigm must change,” Weiss explained. “Instead of piecemeal reaction to particular project proposals, we need a proactive, system-wide plan for new lines based on keeping the lights on, meeting renewable energy standards and climate goals, and addressing wildlife, land and water use concerns.”

In the past, Weiss noted, wildlife, land and water issues have surfaced late in the siting processes, long after new lines have been mapped. Incorporating such concerns from the beginning of the planning process “has not been done before at this level,” he said.

For the duration of the three-year planning project, the Coalition’s focus will include:

  • Analyzing energy efficiency and other non-wires alternatives.
  • Calculating the amount of existing transmission capacity that will become available as dirty coal plants shut down.
  • Helping wilderness/wildlife/public lands advocates balance the threats of central-station renewable energy and transmission projects against the threats climate change poses to the intact ecosystems and species.

The whole point is to make the transition to our clean energy future as complete, affordable, fair and environmentally sensitive as possible.

For more information, visit WECC’s planning site at www.wecc.biz/Planning/TransmissionExpansion/RTEP/Pages/default.aspx or contact Weiss at st***@nw******.org.

Marc Krasnowsky, NW Energy Coalition