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Feds, states battle over new power grid

By ROSALIE WESTENSKOW, UPI Energy Correspondent   |   March 3, 2009 at 3:16 PM
Congress has plugged billions into revamping the antiquated U.S. electricity grid, but experts fear money alone may not be enough to update the nation's energy backbone.

The specifics of funding and regulating an enhanced national power grid could also affect new technology for clean-energy production.

This complex web of 300,000 miles of transmission lines powers the country every day, providing energy for heating, lighting and every other power-based activity.

The stimulus bill signed by President Barack Obama in mid-February includes $11 billion for improvements to the grid -- an investment many policymakers label as an essential component of increasing green energy and efficiency. This includes everything from installing transmission lines to employing new technologies that would streamline the flow of energy.

"Smart-grid technologies can alter the way we use electricity," Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said at a hearing in the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming last week. "I think of this as the 'energy Internet.'"

Among other things, a smart grid could boost energy efficiency by providing meters to help consumers evaluate their energy usage and store excess energy in the batteries of hybrid plug-in vehicles.

While most experts agree the grid desperately needs to be updated, there's dispute about what role the federal government should play. Some groups want to see states lead the transformation; others say an integrated, timely renovation must be coordinated from Washington.

In 2005 Congress gave ultimate authority over the grid to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but a recent court case has challenged the status quo. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last month that FERC can't overrule a state's decision to reject a transmission project.

"The issue is that states need to have a role in the decision-making process," said Dan Scandling, spokesman for Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who has pushed to limit federal power to build new lines.

The case before the appeals court involved two power companies that plan to build a high-voltage power line through multiple states, including Maryland and Virginia, providing power for New York City.

"They were going to put in huge transmission lines and enormous towers, some as high as 17 stories, and they were going to be over some of Virginia's most historic sites," Scandling said. "It's all about serving these large population centers."

These concerns illustrate a serious issue policymakers will confront as they attempt to incorporate green energy into the grid, said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.

"Much of the nation's wind, solar and geothermal resources are located in the interior of the country, while many of the people who need that electricity live near the coasts," he said. "If we can't streamline the regulatory issues for siting new transmission lines, we'll be doomed to legal battles and the same outdated grid."

But a new grid is an absolute necessity if the country increases the use of renewable energy, which is largely located in rural areas. The intermittent nature of wind and solar power, for example, requires smarter technologies to regulate how and when they're used, said Tom Casey, chief executive of Current Group, a company that sells smart-grid technologies.

"Renewables cannot really reach their full potential without having more intelligence in the grid to allow them to be managed and dispatched," Casey told Congress.

However, proponents of grid renovations at the regional level -- including Edward Krapels, chief executive of Anbaric Transmission, a company that works on grid issues -- said a one-size-fits-all approach to ramping up renewable-energy production doesn't make sense. Because it costs money to build cross-country lines and then send electricity across hundreds of miles, it's more economical just to use energy that's produced nearby, Krapels said.

"The coastal states on the East and West coasts have access to on-land and offshore wind sources that we think can be harvested with relatively short transmission lines," he told UPI.

The Southwest receives ample sunlight for solar energy; the Southeast, which has fewer renewable resources, could use some small-scale solar and offshore wind power, as well as nuclear, which isn't considered renewable but doesn't emit carbon dioxide. The only place where a "super grid" makes sense is in the middle of the country, Krapels said.

Some states are taking on the transmission issue themselves, including Texas, home to more megawatts of wind power than any other state, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

The state's Public Utility Commission plans to build 18,000 megawatts of new transmission in the next five to seven years. With 9,000 megawatts of wind turbines in West Texas alone and 40,000 more slated for development, extra transmission lines are desperately needed, said Ed Clark, spokesman for Austin Energy, a Texas utility.

"There's so much wind generated in Texas now, there's not enough transmission to bring it to the rest of the state," Clark told UPI.

The utility has the country's biggest green-power purchasing program, which allows costumers to sign up for wind-generated electricity at a different price than the regular utility rate. Participants subscribe at a set price over a specific time period. Those who signed up several years ago are saving money compared to current fossil-fuel energy prices, but more recent customers are not. That's largely due to transmission problems.

"There's now transmission-congestion costs that are adding to the price," Clark said.

Altogether, transmission costs are responsible for one-third of the wind-energy price, which recently reached 8 cents per kilowatt-hour in the Austin program, as opposed to 3.65 cents for fossil-fuel based electricity.

The amount of money Congress plans to spend on the grid may be insufficient, Clark said. Texas projects it will spend about $5 billion to update its transmission capabilities.

"So $11 billion from the feds -- well, you know," Clark said.

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(rwestenskow@upi.com)

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