Two years ago, Congress gave the Department of Energy more authority to locate power lines – sometimes against state opposition. An amendment to the energy bill passed recently by the Senate would greatly expand this federal power, especially in the case of wind, solar and geothermal power. While increasing alternative energy sources is important, giving additional power to federal regulators is premature, so it is encouraging that, with a push from Maine lawmakers, the amendment is likely to be rewritten.
In the Energy Policy Act of 2005, lawmakers gave the Energy Department the authority to designate National Interest Electricity Transmission Corridors. Before designating such corridors, where the department determined that new transmission lines needed to be built to ease the flow of electricity, the department was to consult with affected states. Without this consultation, the department designated several “high priority” corridors this spring. None were in New England.
Within “high priority” corridors, local regulators are given one year to approve proposed projects without substantial modifications. If they do not, the applicant can apply to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and ask the federal regulators to override the local rejection or inaction.
Since the corridors have only been designated for months and no project has yet to be reviewed by state regulators, it is too soon to determine whether this new federal authority needs to be expanded.
However, an amendment, sponsored by South Dakota Sen. John Thune, was included in the Senate energy bill. It would allow individual companies to nominate corridors – they are now designated solely by the Energy Department – and would expand the reasons that such corridors can be created to include boosting economic development and easing access to wind power.
Under the Thune amendment, which was passed by a voice vote without a hearing, a Massachusetts utility can suggest that a new transmission line be built through Maine, says Kurt Adams, chairman of the state’s Public Utilities Commission. Worse, Maine has several proposals to build wind electricity generation facilities here. If they are built, this can open the door to a high priority corridor designation and the usurpation of the PUC’s authority to regulate where transmission lines are built, according to Mr. Adams.
“Maine is prepared to host thousands of megawatts of generation capacity from wind and biomass” to serve southern New England’s “insatiable appetite for energy,” Gov. John Baldacci wrote in a letter to the state’s congressional delegation.
“However, the development of these resources for New England must not harm Maine consumers or adversely impact our environment, which is the cornerstone of our economy,” he wrote.
Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins are working with Sen. Thune to ensure the intent of the amendment – to ensure wind power projects have access to transmission lines – is met without overruling the interests of host states and maybe even assuring that such states’ ratepayers benefit as well.
This would greatly improve the amendment.
By BDN Staff
12 July 2007
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