Western governors hire consultants to tackle permitting backlog

Source: Hannah Northey • E&E • Posted: Monday, December 12, 2011

The Western Governors’ Association announced the hiring yesterday of consultants to help break a permit backlog for long-distance power lines that would harness isolated pockets of wind and solar energy.

Laurence Chaset of the California law firm Keyes & Fox LLP will provide legal expertise, and Susan Lee, vice president of the San Francisco-based Aspen Environmental Group, will advise the governors on transmission permitting.

The consultants are tasked with determining why transmission projects face delays and writing proposals for streamlining the process, spokesman Doug Larson said. They will present their findings to the association’s meeting next summer.

Of particular interest are transmission lines that have overcome regulatory hurdles as well as a handful of transmission projects the federal government chose to fast-track in October, Larson said.

Two months ago, nine federal agencies announced the formation of “rapid response teams” to accelerate permitting for seven transmission projects spanning 12 states (Land Letter, Oct. 6).

In the West, those projects included TransWest Express LLC’s 700-mile transmission line in Wyoming, Utah and Nevada; two projects that SunZia Transmission LLC is building in Arizona and New Mexico; and two proposed lines in Oregon.

The consultants will determine why those projects have stalled and what challenges exist in lowering the cost of integrating wind and solar generation onto the grid, Larson said.

The group also offered $1.4 million in grants yesterday to state agencies to map wildlife habitat and corridors for large-scale energy projects.

The association has called for faster permitting and construction of power lines to help states meet clean energy goals and boost grid reliability. But many projects face stiff local opposition and can take more than a decade to get approved.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) said in a statement that state and federal agencies need to intervene in the transmission planning process because projects are taking too long to build, which creates financial risks.

“There is a dramatic mismatch between the timeframe for planning generation resource additions and electric transmission development,” Schweitzer said. “This mismatch poses unwarranted risks to vital resource development and the development of transmission needed to move those resources to consumers.”

But Larson noted that the initiative is not aimed at forcing the construction of new power lines. “This isn’t to force approval of projects, it’s to improve the permitting process,” he said. “You can still say ‘no,’ but in a more expedited and informed way than we probably do.”