Utility regulators back down on grid-siting resolution

Source: Rod Kuckro, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A group of state electric utility regulators tabled a resolution critical of the Department of Energy’s plan to take an ownership stake in a 720-mile interstate transmission project from the Oklahoma Panhandle to Tennessee.

The move Tuesday at the winter policy meetings of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners in Washington was “unusual” said Elizabeth Jacobs, a member of the Iowa Utilities Board and vice chairwoman of NARUC’s Electricity Committee.

It’s not often that draft resolutions brought forward for consideration fail to be approved. The transmission siting one was the only resolution not to be approved. Six others were.

“It wasn’t supposed to be directed at any one project,” said Jacobs. Rather, she said the resolution “was supposed to be about defending state jurisdiction [over transmission siting] going forward.”

But there was some confusion “that made people really nervous,” in particular its specific mention of the Plains and Eastern Clean Line proposed by Clean Line Energy Partners LLC, she said.

“I think some people had concerns with language about NARUC taking all necessary actions” to challenge the line, Jacobs said, and thought “Let’s think this one through a little more.”

The galvanizing issue for some NARUC members is DOE’s unprecedented use of its authority to take an ownership stake in a line under Section 1222 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

The Plains and Eastern line is ranked No. 9 in a list of 50 high-priority infrastructure projects circulating among governors, lawmakers and the business lobby. And the line could become a topic of debate if Congress and the White House develop economic stimulus legislation aimed at infrastructure development.

The 50-project document touted the line as a “national security project that can add resiliency to our electric grid,” citing its ability to “move cheap, clean, wind power energy” that could power more than 1 million homes in the mid-South.

In March 2016, former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz issued a decision that DOE would participate in the development of the project as a full owner of the portion of the line running through Arkansas. The DOE decision also allows the use of federal eminent domain to site the line if needed, something that is especially irritating the state regulators.

The project is expected to cost $2.3 billion and be in service in late 2020. Under development since 2009, it will send 4,000 megawatts of renewable energy to Arkansas, Tennessee and the southeastern United States.

The resolution was proposed by Sam Britton, a member of the Mississippi Public Service Commission. He did not return a call seeking comment.

Britton had explained to the NARUC committee that the resolution was “resource neutral” and not anti-wind or anti-renewables, said one attendee.

Mario Hurtado, executive vice president at Clean Line who leads the Plains and Eastern Clean Line project, welcomed the NARUC decision.

“Resolutions in a collegial body like this are supposed to be noncontroversial,” he said.

“It’s not really the role of NARUC to decide on projects. I think a lot of the commissioners were not comfortable passing judgement on single project in this informal association that’s supposed be about broad policy,” Hurtado said.

“To now to try to relitigate things is sort of like you’re trying to start the clock again, and that’s not really fair for investors,” he said.

Jennifer Murphy, NARUC’s assistant general counsel, emphasized that the tabled resolution does not negate the organization’s opposition to even limited “backstop” siting authority granted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, also in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

“We have a resolution from 2009 that states our position on backstop siting. And until we have another resolution about backstop siting, that’s our position on backstop siting,” Murphy said.

For Iowa’s Jacobs, the siting issue is getting greater attention by regulators as “the citizens and the consumers are getting more and more involved in major infrastructure projects that deal with energy.”

“Consumers would not feel comfortable that the federal government is making a decision that could impact them within miles of their home,” she said. “We’re hearing it more and more.”

The trend in opposition “gives play to the old adage that all politics is local. That’s really where we are right now. That whole populist sentiment is really strong out there,” Jacobs said.