Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Carrying Clean Power New Plan for Alternative Energy Sources Still Needs an Oft-Contested Component: Transmission Lines

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Carrying Clean Power New Plan for Alternative Energy Sources Still Needs an Oft-Contested Component: Transmission Lines

Article excerpt

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. …

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