With Washington Pressing for Wind Energy, Companies Fight Over Infrastructure Investments

September 08, 2010 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

Wind energy The Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab estimated it would cost at least $43 billion to upgrade the nation’s electric system to move to 20 percent wind by 2030. (Flickr, Travel Aficionado)

By now, the Obama administration has made clear it wants to ramp up the use of renewable energy, calling it a key to the nation’s leadership in the 21st century. And some in Congress are hoping to pass a federal renewable energy standard, requiring the production of more wind, solar, biomass and geothermal energy.

[Environment1] Utilities recognize the shift to green energy as a major growth prospect. But they also recognize an impediment: Infrastructure. Indeed, across the country, utility and energy companies are preparing for a massive fight over how to deliver clean energy to people’s homes — and, more to the point, who will pay for the necessary infrastructure to get the energy there.

Behind the scenes, in recent months, utilities have battled over how to allocate the costs of the new high-powered electric lines necessary to move wind energy from one part of the country to the other. Despite efforts by federal regulators to referee the fight, some experts foresee further delays in the construction of the new electric, or transmission, lines they say are essential for meeting federal and state renewable energy mandates.

“A lack of transmission lines is the single greatest barrier to wind here in the Midwest. The lack of transmission has proved to be a huge barrier,” says Jamie Karnik, communications manager at Wind on the Wires, an advocacy group. Karnik says the Midwest produces about 10,000 megawatts of wind now, and needs to build at least 25,000 to 40,000 further megawatts of capacity to meet state and regional renewable energy goals.

Many utilities in the wind-rich Midwest would like to move excess electricity to the Northeast on new, high-powered lines. But utilities in the Northeast see Midwestern wind as a threat to its nascent offshore wind industry. While offshore wind is plentiful in the region, it has been plagued by regulatory delays and high costs. Cheap wind from the Midwest could keep the Northeast from developing its own local source of renewable power.

“As the nation looks to move to a renewable energy standard, a lot of that really comes down to how to meet the energy needs of the East coast,” Karnik says. “Certainly people who are building wind in the Midwest, have their eye on the eastern market.”

Utilities on both sides of this divide are drawing the battle lines over so-called cost allocation policies, which lay out a structure for how the costs for these lines are spread among ratepayers. One faction (including some Midwestern utilities and renewable energy advocates) proposes spreading the costs broadly over an entire region, arguing that new lines deliver broad economic and electric reliability benefits to all ratepayers. The other faction (including many Northeastern utilities) says costs should be paid by the specific beneficiaries of the new line.

Electric industry stakeholders — utilities, renewable energy developers, transmission companies — stand to lose or gain billions of dollars based on the structure of these policies. As a result, they are pouring significant lobbying resources into their development. “Needed transmission in the eastern interconnection would be about $85 billion,” says one lawyer following the issue who was not authorized to speak on the record. “The dollars involved here are huge and the regional economic impacts are huge. Utilities are keenly aware of that and that’s why they are fighting over cost allocation.”

A 2008 study by the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab said it would cost at least $43 billion to upgrade the nation’s electric system to move to 20 percent wind by 2030. Others have put estimates significantly higher. A study conducted by the lab in January also said that any effort to meet the 20 percent goal in the Northeast would require “significant expansion of the transmission infrastructure.”

At the center of this fight is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, a little-known agency that has often played second fiddle to the Department of Energy, but energy policy experts say has far more power over shaping the country’s energy policy. After months of discussions with industry stakeholders, FERC released in June a cost allocation proposal meant to assuage utilities’ concerns. It drew on elements of both utility factions’ proposals, giving some preference to projects that meet policy goals like renewable mandates, while ensuring that the costs allocated are at least “roughly commensurate” with the benefits delivered.

For the most part, industry stakeholders say they can work within the framework FERC set up: It gives utilities latitude to develop their own workable proposals. But as the public comment period on FERC’s proposal comes to a close at the end of this month, they also say the cost allocation debate might take years to resolve.

The lawyer following the issue said the ongoing battles between utilities over cost allocation could significantly impact states’ abilities to meet renewable energy standards. “I think it will affect it tremendously,” the lawyer says. “I think it’s going to continue to be really, really hard to build big lines.”

Rob Gramlich, senior vice president for public policy at the American Wind Energy Association, the wind industry’s national trade group, says he is “encouraged by what FERC is doing,” adding, “They clearly understand the challenges of the new clean energy economy and what that entails.” He says that FERC is working to expand a “Balkanized” electricity grid that was meant only to work on a local, rather than a regional basis.

In order to meet a stringent renewable energy standard, Gramlich says transmission must be built across regions in order to bring wind from the Midwest to states that don’t have many renewable resources. “To do that we’d need more regionalization of the type that FERC is pursuing now,” he says. “To do it cost effectively, by using the most economic resource areas, significant new transmission would be needed.”

But Gramlich notes that any rulemaking that FERC finalizes will likely be challenged in court, as some companies will “stand to lose a lot” no matter what proposal is adopted. Such challenges could delay a process that likely won’t even go into effect until 2012, given the various compliance periods allowed under the plan.

Joseph Kelliher — former FERC chairman and current executive vice president of federal regulatory affairs at NextEra Energy, the country’s largest renewable energy developer — says FERC’s cost allocation proposal is “critical and essential to translating conceptual renewable energy projects to real projects. They actually won’t get built until there is some clear conception of cost recovery.”

Kelliher also defends broad cost socialization, saying that entire regions benefit from new lines that carry renewable energy. “The notion that only ‘A’ and ‘B’ have to pay for that line and nobody else has to pay for anything, economists would look at that and say it’s a classic ‘free rider,’” he says. “Free riders tend to like the status quo and would like to get something for nothing. The current policy does discourage investment.”

At the same time, offshore wind is just not as cost competitive as onshore wind from the Midwest, Kelliher says. “The difference between onshore wind and offshore wind is about 400 percent. If transmission constraints don’t allow you to import good onshore wind from the Midwest for at least part of your renewable energy needs, you’re left paying” more, he says.

But Tim Fagan, director of public policy at the New Jersey-based PSEG, says broad socialization of costs puts the Northeast at a disadvantage because it favors Midwestern wind. “The concern is that we may end up with an overall less economic solution,” he says. “If the resources from the Midwest are able to have these long transmission lines paid for, that may competitively eek out other options.”

Fagan says Northeastern states need to be given time to develop local offshore wind and solar resources. “Eastern states are looking to develop offshore resources; they’re plentiful and they’re close to load,” he says. “In New Jersey, we’ve been aggressively developing PV solar.”

While a broad energy bill authored by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) addressed some electric transmission issues, those provisions are not expected to come up for a vote in the Senate this year. Until then, electric utility officials say they will be watching Congress closely in the coming weeks to see if momentum is building for passage of a federal RES. Renewable energy advocates have been working feverishly behind the scenes during the August recess to convince key senators that the proposal could get the 60 votes necessary for passage.

“You’re beginning to see people stepping up and saying we can’t meet these mandates if we can’t get transmission built,” says one utility official who requested anonymity to speak openly. “All of this comes down to whether or not we have a federal RES. That has the potential to change things.”