Feds attempt to speed complicated process of building power lines


On a brisk October day, Paul Christensen is helping harvest sugar beets on his southern Idaho farm. His work as a Cassia County commissioner keeps him busy, he says, but he still enjoys "playing in the dirt." He's not the only one: Cassia is among Idaho's most productive agricultural counties. That's partly why it has resisted Gateway West, a power line that would hook like a jack-o-lantern's grin across about 1,100 miles of southern Wyoming and Idaho. Two utilities proposed it in 2007 to deliver up to 3,000 additional megawatts of power, including wind energy. Roughly half of the original route would pass through public land, but in Cassia, Christensen says, 75 percent would march across private, mostly agricultural property, where transmission towers can disrupt center-pivot irrigation and crop-dusting flights.

So Cassia County proposed routes away from irrigated fields and more concentrated on public land. In fact, the Bureau of Land Management -- which oversees most of the public acres the project would cross -- took an extra nine months to work with state and multiple local governments to develop alternate routes before starting a draft environmental review. Meanwhile, the utilities revised their application four times. Then came inconsistencies between how different BLM field offices handled the project, uncertainty over federal policy on the dwindling greater sage grouse (the line's path crosses through the bird's range), and disagreement between Congress and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar over his short-lived wildlands policy, which required the BLM to take stock of its wilderness-quality lands and protect appropriate areas from development. These and other factors have delayed the project's already gigantic and complex federal permitting process by two years so far.

Gateway West's tale is hardly unique. Because they cross through so many jurisdictions, transmission lines have to navigate the varying requirements of everything from federal, state and tribal agencies to local governments and private landowners who may not benefit from the line's power. (Gateway West alone is subject to at least 34 different agencies, some of which require multiple permits.) On average, the process can take around five years, says Lloyd Drain, executive director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority, not including the two or so additional years needed to negotiate rights of way with private landowners and actually build the lines. But even as people wrangle over where projects should go, the electrical transmission grid is aging, with no significant buildout in the West in decades. Experts say it needs updating to increase reliability and capacity to meet growing consumer demand. Not only that, but large-scale development of renewable energy in places like Wyoming's windy high plains and the Southwest's unrelentingly sunny deserts has been stymied in part by a lack of transmission to population centers.

Seeking solutions, the Obama administration announced Oct. 5 that it had selected seven proposed power lines -- including Gateway West and four others in the West -- to serve as pilot projects for its new Rapid Response Team for Transmission. It's the latest in a series of steps this administration has taken to address the grid-lock, mostly through encouraging cooperation among agencies and electricity planners. The goal, says Steve Black, counselor to the Interior secretary, is to "transform the way transmission is built in this country."

The Rapid Response projects are essentially a more focused version of an interagency collaboration on transmission issues created in 2009. The effort taps nine federal departments, including Interior and Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and will reach out to state and local authorities, all to better coordinate permitting processes and set tighter, more ambitious schedules, moving lines forward without neglecting environmental reviews. "We're trying to not just do what we did before, faster, but to actually figure out whether the federal evaluation can happen in a different way," says Lauren Azar, senior advisor to the Energy secretary,
All the Western lines chosen as pilot projects "are strategic backbones for unlocking wind, solar and geothermal," adds Black, and each presents a unique set of challenges, from endangered species issues to conflicts with military facilities, that the team hopes to learn from.

Walt George, Gateway West's BLM project manager, says that lessons from the line's delays have already been successfully applied to other projects. After taking extra time to accommodate late-coming local governments' routing proposals for Gateway West, the agency decided that it could save time in the future by sending individual notices to all property owners who might be affected before the scoping process even starts, tedious as that sounds. This spring, the BLM tried the approach with Transwest Express, another pilot project that would carry wind power from Wyoming to southern Nevada and California, and was able to avoid similar delays.

Other administration efforts are more sweeping. This summer, FERC adopted Order 1000. Among other things, the rule ensures that only power customers who benefit from new lines pay for them in their electrical bills. It also requires transmission owners -- who have historically proposed lines based only on their own needs -- to collaborate with each other on regional plans.

"A more integrated grid is really part of what we're after from an environmental perspective," says Carl Zichella, Natural Resources Defense Council director for Western transmission. There are 38 grid operators in the West; better planning among them could reduce overall requirements for new infrastructure, lessening the environmental footprint of grid updates and ensuring important work is completed more quickly, he says. It will also make it easier to balance intermittent renewable power sources -- wind power from California supplementing wind power from Wyoming, for example -- enabling much more renewable energy to enter the grid.

"I'm impressed with the things I've seen out of D.C. with respect to permitting and siting this past year," says Drain. If improved agency coordination through the pilot projects speeds up the review process even by multiple months, he says, "that's going to do wonders." It would certainly be good news for Gateway West, which Idaho Power and Rocky Mountain Power hope to build between 2015 and 2018.

"If there are ways we can make these processes go any more smoothly, we need to try to do that," agrees BLM's George. On the other hand, Gateway West has inevitable and significant impacts, and "we've got people with really exact expectations of what this process should produce. That means more time and larger volumes of information." A truly thorough review of a project so big will never be that speedy, he says, even if it becomes more efficient: "You don't rush the public if they don't want to be rushed."

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