Transmission lines, often contested, expected with Clean Power Plan

If one were to sketch how the electric power sector could adapt to meet new clean energy regulations, it would be logical to draw some wind mills and solar farms in areas with constant breeze and abundant sunshine.

Renewable energy sources like wind and solar stand to balloon as one of the biggest ways that states will comply with the Clean Power Plan, a sweeping set of federal regulations aimed at slashing carbon emissions from power plants by 2030. The extension of a federal tax credit last month for wind and solar development will help, too. 

Missing from that sketch, however, would be a tangled mess of hulking, long-range transmission lines that regulators and developers say is necessary to bring that renewable power from the point of generation to utilities for local distribution.

While citizen groups have fought transmission projects — often successfully — by attacking the developer’s need to build them, the environmental regulations could usher in more projects and complicate opposition. 

Changing drivers of transmission

At its core, the formula for developers to win approval for new transmission lines has been simple: Justify the need, show there is no cheaper alternative, begin construction.

In 2015, PJM Interconnection, the regional grid operator in Valley Forge that coordinates the flow of power through 13 states and the District of Columbia, experienced one of the slowest building years ever, said Steve Herling, vice president of planning.

PJM approved $490 million in transmission investment in 2015, far below its annual average of $1.9 billion since 2000. Of the 114 proposals received, it approved 26. “Electric customer demand has flattened off substantially in recent years,” Mr. Herling said, which affects the need for more transmission. 

The drivers of transmission are changing, he said. With the Clean Power Plan requiring the power generation mix to emit 32 percent less carbon in 2030 than in 2005, dirtier plants will shut down and newer, cleaner plants will need to be built. “Any time you add a new resource, on top of removing another, you create an imbalance. Sometimes, that imbalance will require new transmission.”

PJM has been forced to respond to regulatory-driven power grid changes before, but in smaller doses.

Prior to the Clean Power Plan, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued rules limiting emissions of mercury and air toxics for power plants. The rules contributed to the closure of 1,400 megawatts of coal-fired power in northern Ohio in 2012, about 13 percent of generating capacity in that region, according to government figures. They also were cited in FirstEnergy Corp.’s closure of Hatfield’s Ferry and Mitchell power plants in Greene and Fayette counties in 2013. 

Rather than building new plants, PJM identified 35 transmission projects, each costing more than $5 million, to supply more power to the Cleveland area, including a $184.5-million line from Bruce Mansfield Power Station in Beaver County. 

If more of the plants now being used to transmit power are slated for closure to reduce carbon emissions, it could challenge the grid operator need to provide a steady supply. PJM has no authority to force power plants to run but, in rare cases, it can appeal to federal officials to change the designation of a plant to “must-run.”

“In most cases, we’ve been able to allow generators to retire as they wish and we build transmission as quickly as we can,” Mr. Herling said.

Jockeying for projects

Transmission companies see big potential for new projects, particularly from sparsely populated areas that generate wind energy to urban areas. “Just as trains carried cattle and other goods from the rural areas to urban centers, the Plains & Eastern Clean Line will carry renewable energy from the Plains of the Southwest,” states the website of one developer, Clean Line Energy of Houston, Texas.

Clean Line expects federal approval for its 700-mile Plains & Eastern Clean Line, designed to carry 4,000 megawatts of power from wind farms in the panhandle of Oklahoma. The line will terminate near Memphis, Tenn. Clean Line has four other projects in the pipeline.

“We anticipate a very busy 2016,” said company president Michael Skelly. 

With renewables, it’s a “chicken or the egg” problem, said Brian Thumm, director of regional planning for ITC Holdings, a Michigan-based transmission developer with 15,600 circuit miles of transmission line in the Midwest.

ITC Holdings is gathering interest from wind farms in Ontario to see if a proposed 1,000-megawatt transmission line terminating in Erie, Pa., makes sense. 

The final version of the Clean Power Plan, Mr. Thumm said, “gives us a little more breathing room with respect to transmission development. If we’re successful in working with the states while the state implementation plans are developed, we may have the opportunity to begin to work on some meaningful transmission projects,” he said.

Alternatives to transmission

More transmission projects could be a concern for those who say transmission companies don’t have incentives to consider alternatives to hulking lines. Alternatives include improved energy efficiency, distributed solar, energy storage and demand response, which is when consumers agree to shut off power during times of peak demand. 

Scott Hempling, a utility attorney in Silver Spring, Md., has called on federal authorities to require independent analysis of alternatives. Because costs for transmission projects are allocated among utilities, ratepayers end up footing the bill for lines that Mr. Hempling said are often more expensive than the alternatives.

Opponents used some of those arguments to successfully derail the Potomac-Appalachian Transmission Highline, a 290-mile line from Putnam County, W.Va., to Frederick County, Md., proposed by Allegheny Energy in 2008. The Greensburg company, acquired by FirstEnergy in 2011, suspended the project after it could not convince regulators the line was necessary.

Mr. Thumm, the regional planning director, said transmission companies present projects where they believe they’re needed.

“If we knew there was another solution, we’d probably throttle back,” he said. “We look foolish if we come in with a $100 million project, if it can be solved with a $10 million project.”

Daniel Moore:, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.

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