Senate poised to push for greener, modern grid on heels on QER 

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, April 24, 2015

Fresh on the heels of the Obama administration’s call for a stronger, more flexible electric grid that is resistant to the effects of climate change, a Senate quintet is going full speed ahead on greening the country’s energy system and adding technology to usher in more wind and solar.

Four Democrats and one independent on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, including the panel’s top Democrat, are expected to unveil legislation in the coming days to modernize the United States’ aging electric grid and bolster storage, a technology that many experts say holds the keys to stabilizing the generation of intermittent renewable energy.

Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) is slated to join Democratic Sens. Al Franken of Minnesota, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) in introducing the bill.

The language is part of an expected accelerated level of activity in the upper chamber as the panel vets and assembles broad energy legislation.

ENR Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who is looking at a number of proposals related to reliability and other grid issues, has asked panel members to introduce legislation they’d like to see in a broad energy bill in short order to allow for hearings and markups, and ultimately for a comprehensive energy bill to reach the Senate floor this summer, said Robert Dillon, a spokesman for the senator.

“We asked members to introduce legislation that they’d like to see considered for a broader energy package so we can hold hearings in the next month,” Dillon said. “There’s going to be a flurry of activity here in the next week.”

The Democratic push for upgrading the grid and boosting storage falls in line with a highly anticipated road map of policy suggestions the administration laid out in its Quadrennial Energy Review, a presidentially directed report that outlines a path toward a “future grid” and calls for billions of dollars in research and national review of transmission plans and barriers to their implementation.

The Energy Department released the report just months before U.S. EPA is set to finalize its Clean Power Plan, a rule that aims to reduce the power sector’s carbon footprint 30 percent by 2030. The administration throughout the report points to transformations taking hold of the grid, including the Clean Power Plan and other recent EPA rules, a surge of cheap natural gas, a wave of coal plant retirements and a rush of intermittent renewable energy (Greenwire, April 21).

The QER could serve as a springboard in the coming days for other Democrats seeking to support new infrastructure, said Rosemarie Calabro Tully, a spokeswoman for Cantwell. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz is slated to discuss the review before the panel on Tuesday, April 28.

Jim Hoecker, a former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman who is now general counsel of Wires, a nonprofit group of transmission owners, said the QER sets the table for consideration of the country’s need to strengthen its pipes and wires but added that it could face pushback.

“A lot of that is justified on the basis of climate, and you know how that goes over in parts of the Senate,” he said.

‘Too hot for people to handle’

Other measures could spark broader debates about just how deeply the federal government should wade into approving new power lines.

Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico last week unveiled legislation to give federal regulators power to override state decisions and site power lines meant to move large amounts of renewable energy across long distances (Greenwire, April 21).

Heinrich’s bill would give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission backstop power to authorize projects identified for cost-sharing under the agency’s Order No. 1000. Under the bill, FERC could act if a state fails to act within a year, denies the project or makes approval contingent upon requirements that “unreasonably interfere” with constructing the power line.

Proponents of Heinrich’s bill have argued the measure is narrowly crafted and invaluable for advancing critical transmission projects traversing multiple regions and states.

But the broader concept has triggered tough negotiations in the past and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners has already raised concerns that Heinrich’s legislation, while appearing narrowly tailored, could have “broad scope on the ground” (Climatewire, April 22).

FERC initially had federal “backstop” authority under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to approve permits under certain circumstances, including if a state “withheld approval.” FERC interpreted that to give the agency backstop authority even if a state had rejected an application, but a court overturned that interpretation in 2011.

The issue is one that hits home for Heinrich. The senator has voiced his support for high-voltage power lines like the $2 billion, 515-mile-long SunZia Southwest Transmission Project that would carry Arizona and New Mexico’s stranded wind and solar power to markets across the West.

Although the project won federal approval, New Mexico Rep. Steve Pearce (R), continues to argue the power line would harm the mission of the Army’s White Sands Missile Range in his home state and damage American Indian cultural sites. A New Mexico agency in January put the project’s approval on hold to make time for further review and public hearings (Greenwire, Jan. 26).

FERC Commissioner Philip Moeller, a Republican, said it’s not likely, but there’s a record supporting restoring some type of a backstop authority for the federal government to approve transmission lines that states otherwise reject.

“A lot but not all of state regulators don’t like that, I doubt there will be the appetite to take that one on,” Moeller said. “My sense is that it might be too hot for people to handle.”

On the other side of the aisle, concerns are cropping up over states’ rights.

Arkansas Republican Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton unveiled a bill in February that would require DOE to obtain approval from a state’s governor and public service commission before exercising the federal power of eminent domain for certain transmission projects. DOE would have to obtain approval from a tribal government should a project traverse tribal lands.

The senators’ bill is tied to Clean Line Energy Partner’s efforts to tap into the DOE’s eminent domain authority to build a power line — the Plains & Eastern Clean Line — through Arkansas. The company is seeking the federal route after the Arkansas Public Service Commission in 2011 denied its application.

Clean Line in a statement said it recognized the senators’ concerns and takes private property concerns seriously, adding that the proposed line would bring millions of dollars in revenue to Arkansas and only advance after thorough federal review.

“This project will move forward only after completing … comprehensive reviews that include many opportunities for public input,” Clean Line said.