Two groups representing Arkansas landowners have sued the US Department of Energy (DOE) in an effort to block development of a 700-mile multi-state transmission line intended to carry wind power from the Oklahoma panhandle to consumers in the south and southeast. The Plains & Eastern transmission project, led by independent developer Clean Line Energy Partners, aims to open access to 4,000 MW of wind power; of this, the project would deliver 500 MW to Arkansas consumers while the remaining 3,500 MW would flow through Arkansas to the Tennessee Valley Authority system. The complaint, filed August 15, challenges the DOE’s decision in March of this year to participate in developing the project.
Federal authority over transmission siting is traditionally limited. However, Section 1222 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 authorizes the DOE to participate in “designing, developing, constructing, operating, maintaining, or owning” new transmission facilities and allows the DOE to “accept and use funds contributed by another entity for the purpose of executing the Project.” The DOE’s decision to participate in Plains & Eastern marks the first time it has invoked Section 1222 to enter a public-private partnership for transmission system development. The plaintiffs in the case, however, are challenging the DOE’s interpretation of the statute and its authority to circumvent state transmission siting processes and exercise eminent domain.
Illustration of Clean Line’s Plains & Eastern Transmission Project
(Source: Clean Line Energy Partners)
The lawsuit marks the latest setback for Clean Line, which launched the Plains & Eastern project back in 2009 and is now in its eighth year of pre-construction legwork. It also attests to the difficulty of implementing multi-state transmission projects under the nation’s existing patchwork of transmission systems and state regulations, particularly when each state along a proposed transmission path can exercise de facto veto power by denying permits and rights-of-way. This raises the risk profile of cross-border transmission projects and has complicated efforts to develop wind and solar in regions where the resource potential is strongest rather than where it is most conveniently sited. Unsurprisingly, former FERC chairs Joseph Kelliher and Jon Wellinghoff have both invoked barriers to renewable energy integration when advocating for greater federal control over electricity transmission siting.
Transmission and Renewables
Twenty-nine US states currently have renewable portfolio standards, and if the courts uphold the Clean Power Plan, all states could soon be required to reduce carbon pollution from their power sectors. While distributed energy resources like rooftop solar are on the rise, there is also a case to be made for harnessing large-scale wind and solar at optimal generation sites and transporting that power across long distances to where it is needed.
According to a widely cited study published in January in the journal Nature Climate Change, overhauling the nation’s transmission system with a well-planned network of long-distance high-voltage direct current transmission lines would enable penetration of renewables at a scale that could reduce CO2 emissions from the US power sector by up to 80% relative to 1990 levels, and would do so without increasing the levelized cost of electricity. Wind and solar industry groups have issued similar calls for a network of “green power superhighways” to connect renewables from regions where the energy potential is strongest to population centers where demand is greatest.
Yet challenges facing projects like Plains & Eastern suggest transmission upgrades designed to harness large-scale renewables and transport them across states will be difficult to execute in the current regulatory environment. Whether the courts ultimately uphold the DOE’s interpretation of Section 1222 or find in favor of the Arkansas community groups rallying against it could not only seal the fate of Plains & Eastern but also foretell prospects for future interstate transmission projects seeking to open access to large-scale wind and solar power.
Tags: Department of Energy, Plains & Eastern, Transmission and Distribution, Utility Transformations, Wind Energy
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