Experts urge lawmakers to focus on transmission

Source: Sam Mintz, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, May 11, 2018

A panel of experts yesterday told lawmakers that Congress and federal agencies need to heighten their focus on transmission infrastructure policy.

Much of the conversation in the energy policy world of late has circled around sources of generation, with the Department of Energy seeking ways to stop coal and nuclear plants from closing.

But expanding and upgrading transmission, which has largely been discussed only on the fringe of that conversation, has a huge contribution to make toward grid resilience and keeping electric rates down, the witnesses said.

Rob Gramlich, founder of Grid Strategies LLC, went as far as to say that he sees a leadership gap at DOE and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

“I fear the agencies are too distracted by misguided proposals to provide life extensions to old power plants. We’re all wasting our time comparing different dictionary definitions of reliability and resilience, when we should be updating policies for transmission,” he said during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing.

As committee ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) noted, “Transmission projects are rarely free from controversy.”

That includes debate about when new lines are needed and how they should be paid for.

“I think it’s clear that we have to pay more attention to how transmission gets built, how its ownership share is divvied up, what the rates of return are that are provided to the people building it,” said John Twitty, executive director of the Transmission Access Policy Study Group.

Order No. 1000

A key policy debate is around Order No. 1000, a FERC rule that was put into place in 2011 with the intent of making regional transmission planning more efficient.

It requires utilities to take part in such planning processes and was also meant to make it easier for “nonincumbent” developers to compete to build transmission projects in other service areas.

There is near-universal agreement that while it was created with good intent and had valuable goals, Order No. 1000 has been a failure.

“The order tried to do a lot of things all at once. It was partly a competition policy, it was partly an investment policy, it was partly a regional planning policy, it was partly a cost-allocation policy,” said Tony Clark, who was a FERC commissioner between 2012 and 2016.

“When you push that much out in a rule and expect the regions to do something with it, you get a lot of bureaucracy in checking compliance boxes,” Clark said.

Lawmakers of both parties agree that, at best, results have been “mixed,” in the words of Energy Subcommittee ranking member Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) yesterday.

In general, there is not much that Congress can do to fix the rule; that would have to come from FERC.

Clark said that Order No. 1000 should be put “on a pretty severe diet” to be “slimmed back.”

“While regional planning conversations may result in some benefits, there may be ways to keep those benefits without imposing the more prescriptive aspects of the order,” he said.

Gramlich said that, among other fixes, FERC should harmonize methods and criteria between regional grid operators to make it easier for regions to coordinate.