Utility-savvy lineman’s son sees storage, greener grid taking Senate stage 

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, June 11, 2015

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) says he grew up a “utility brat.”

He was raised on a cattle ranch in a small town in central Missouri, where his father, Peter, worked as a utility lineman on the side and his mother, Shirley, worked on a factory assembly line, inspecting wheels.

Heinrich said at a Progressive Policy Institute event in Washington, D.C., yesterday that one of his earliest memories entailed visiting his father in the hospital after he fell off a utility pole.

“Surprisingly, that never dampened his enthusiasm for climbing up utility poles and power poles in the middle of lightning storms to get the power back on,” Heinrich said. “It did give him a little bit of a bow-legged walk for the rest of his life.”

These days, Heinrich, who at 43 is one of the youngest members of the Senate, rattles off complex utility jargon and concepts. He holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Missouri and has had solar panels installed on the roof of his Albuquerque, N.M., home for a decade. And Heinrich said he never lost sight of the fact that the age-old grid he knew as a kid was basic architecture developed under Thomas Edison — and that the system was bound to change.

“I just grew up surrounded by electricity and utility issues and sort of a thirst for ‘what’s next?'” Heinrich said.

Heinrich is at the center of a growing discussion with other grid-savvy members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, focused on how to bolster utility-scale renewables, energy storage and distributed generation in a comprehensive energy package.

He’s joined forces with members like independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, a former utility executive, to float legislation, S. 1434, to establish a national energy storage standard for most state-regulated utilities to use batteries, flywheels and other storage (Greenwire, May 28).

Another measure, S. 1017, would give federal regulators backstop authority to approve high-priority transmission projects that face excessive delay from state or local regulators.

Heinrich said he’s happy the Senate ENR panel took up the legislation during its final hearing this week to craft a larger energy bill, legislation that Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the panel’s chairwoman, has said will drop sometime this summer.

He’s also thankful that he and other members like King and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) are part of a new dialogue on Capitol Hill about the grid’s evolution and the need for new infrastructure to curb carbon emissions and meet compliance timelines under U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

While acknowledging that past ENR Committee members like former Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) were also focused on greening the grid and bolstering distributed power, Heinrich said he’s been surprised with committee members’ focus on storage and technologies considered “disruptive” to the traditional utility model.

“It’s very new to the way the committee has kind of thought about stuff,” he said. “I do think there’s a huge amount of interest … the interest around storage is palpable.”

But Heinrich, like his colleagues, said he’s not interested in damaging the existing utility sector.

“I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interest to see the utilities fail economically. They have an enormous amount of infrastructure that we’ve all paid for,” Heinrich said. “The question is, how do you allocate cost fairly across a situation where now you have all of us as producers?”

‘Major exporter of clean energy’

Heinrich’s interest in bolstering transmission and storage grew out of his desire to see New Mexico’s clean energy economy grow, and from seeing gas infrastructure approvals advance on the federal level while transmission decisions stalled.

New Mexico, the senator noted, was 10th in the nation for added solar capacity last year, and building new transmission is key to making the Land of Enchantment a net exporter of renewable power.

“If we seize these opportunities, we are going to become a major exporter of clean power to the rest of the country,” he said.

But although Heinrich said the state now has 325 megawatts of solar, the bulk of the power consumed in the state is generated from coal and natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

And he acknowledged that regional transmission planning has lagged in the West, bogged down by sparse populations and long distances. And that’s where his legislation comes in.

Heinrich’s bill, S. 1017, would give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission backstop power to authorize projects identified for cost-sharing under the agency’s Order No. 1000.

FERC could act if a state fails to approve construction or routing within a year of a company’s seeking approval, or if the state denies the project or doesn’t have the authority to approve the transmission line, or if approval is accompanied by requirements that “unreasonably interfere” with construction.

Heinrich acknowledged he doesn’t have a House counterpart moving the language and that previous attempts at legislation to widen FERC’s authority in this area have failed because of litigation. But he said his legislation would only apply to organized markets where costs are shared, and projects would have to be in the public’s interest.

He also noted that FERC’s at-times contentious use of eminent domain to site and advance interstate natural gas pipelines has allowed the country’s gas infrastructure to move forward while the agency’s approval of power lines has lagged. And that needs to change, he said.

“It just comes down to the difference in the way that we handle those two things under FERC,” Heinrich said. “One works and one doesn’t.”