FERC, 10 states weigh transmission overhaul to unlock clean power

By Miranda Willson | 11/11/2021 07:09 AM EST

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission headquarters in Washington. Francis Chung/E&E News

States want a more prominent role in planning for new electric transmission lines, a process that for years has hobbled the nation’s capacity to move vast amounts of renewable power across the country.

In the inaugural meeting of a joint state and federal task force organized by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, regulators from 10 states laid out the toughest issues tied to the development of high-voltage, long-distance power lines.

FERC is considering a slew of reforms meant to make it easier to develop power lines critical to the transition to 100 percent carbon-free power that many states and electric utilities say they hope to achieve. The task force, which is expected to meet multiple times a year for the next three years, will play an advisory role for FERC as the federal regulators work to craft detailed reforms.

FERC Chairman Richard Glick said he’s aiming to get a “significant amount of input” from state utility regulators to inform the rulemaking process. The federal government and states have distinct but also overlapping roles in the long path to building a long-distance electric power line.

“It’s important for the public interest of our country that we put aside some of our jurisdictional differences at times and see if we can work together,” Glick said during the task force meeting yesterday.

Jason Stanek, chair of the Maryland Public Service Commission and co-chair of the task force, said the goal isn’t simply to gather information. “I’m confident this forum will help build some solutions and hopefully be a model of cooperation,” he said.

The first meeting focused on how state perspectives are, or aren’t, included in the planning process. Policy experts say the process is inefficient, outdated and tilts heavily toward local transmission needs rather than regional and interregional ones. The process often drags on for years as builders, state regulators, grid operators and communities hash out siting concerns and issues around who absorbs the multibillion-dollar costs of upgrading or building new lines.

California, for example, will need to build a significant amount of transmission infrastructure to meet its clean energy goals. Regulators are concerned about cost increases for consumers, said Clifford Rechtschaffen, a commissioner on the California Public Utilities Commission.

“[Transmission] is one of the biggest drivers of rate increases in California,” Rechtschaffen said.

Several participants also said they wanted to see more transmission planning occur between U.S. regions, which largely has not happened. While some commissioners seemed to be more confident in existing regional planning processes than others, the need for more interregional planning, and the potential role of FERC in helping to facilitate it, appeared to be a point of consensus.

“On that specific issue of interregional planning, we do need more leadership on the national level and more help in standardizing the regional approaches to that,” said Andrew French, chairman of the Kansas Corporation Commission.

One-size-fits-all mandates from FERC could be politically unpopular, though. Gladys Brown Dutrieuille, a member of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, emphasized the need for respecting different states’ public policy objectives.

“States around us have different policy issues, and we’re very respectful of those policy issues,” she said. “It’s important to be able to not only acknowledge their policy concerns and initiatives … but we need to be part of that discussion.”

At least a dozen states have set goals — be they mandatory or aspirational — to achieve 100 percent clean electricity or carbon neutrality within the next 30 years or less. Meanwhile, policymakers in some other states, particularly ones with significant coal or natural gas resources, have sought to double down on fossil fuels.

State differences go beyond policy preferences and into regulatory realms. In some parts of the country, electric utilities own generation resources, like power plants and wind farms, as well as the transmission lines and the distribution system that connects power directly to consumers. Elsewhere, the electricity system is more competitive, allowing independent companies to operate generation resources and transmission lines.

Meanwhile, most states are served by utility companies that are members of regional transmission organizations or independent system operators, but many states in the West and Southeast are not.

Still, commissioners seemed enthusiastic about meeting the challenge ahead. By and large, states are concerned about reliability issues facing the grid and recognize the need to prepare the grid for the energy transition, said Kristine Raper, a member of the Idaho Public Utilities Commission.

“Everybody has to be willing to come to the table. Everybody has to be willing to give something, because the reality is that this transition is coming,” Raper said.