- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2009

President Obama’s energy czar suggested Sunday that a new committee might be needed to find how to avoid the lawsuits and red tape that have stalled construction on hundreds of miles of power lines.

Members of the Western Governors Association, who represent areas rife with solar and wind energy but with little means of transmitting the electricity prodded Carol M. Browner, the White House energy and environment czar, on Sunday about how the Obama administration would make sure new power lines will be built to deliver renewable energy from their states across the nation.

Mrs. Browner’s circumspect response, that a new White House committee might be necessary to research a solution, underpins the delicate navigation necessary to construct thousands of miles of new power lines while not angering environmental activists and local regulators, who have the ability to stall such plans almost indefinitely.

Mr. Obama included about $11 billion in the economic-stimulus plan to begin building 3,000 miles of transmission lines as part of his efforts to modernize the national electric grid.

Leaders of Mr. Obama’s energy team and Congress’ top Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, are meeting Monday to discuss generating more clean energy and said they will focus much of the conference on how to expand federal powers to begin constructing a national “smart grid.”

“To date we’ve had a kind of balkanized system of how we move electricity and how we manage the grid,” said John D. Podesta, Mr. Obama’s transition chief, who organized the clean energy forum.

But a federal court ruled last week that a 2005 law thought to greatly expand the federal government’s power over where to put transmission lines does not give the FERC the ability to overrule state regulators, as many had previously thought.

And local activists across the U.S. say the extra powers of eminent domain are the last thing they want.

Dave Slaperud started StopTheLines in New Jersey’s highlands, after he learned the local utility planned to upgrade the energy line running through his backyard from an 85-foot-tall structure.

“I’ve never been in any grass-roots effort,” Mr. Slaperud said. “The first time I went to one of these public workshops and I asked the representatives how they were planning on compensating the homeowners, and they just said were not. And that was enough to get me going.”

Mr. Slaperud, who lives in New Jersey Highlands, a rural stretch of the state northwest of New York City, is trying to stop Public Service Enterprise Group, the local power company, from upgrading a 46-mile long power line that would deliver 3,000 megawatts of electricity to New York City.

On the West Coast, Arizona and California commissioners have been locked in a battle over a new transmission line that would provide 1,200 megawatts of electricity to Los Angeles through Southern Arizona for California.

Members of the Western Governors Association, who were in Washington for the National Governors Association meeting, focused most of their discussion with Mrs. Browner on how the administration planned to make it easier for renewable energy generators in their states to hook into the national grid.

Idaho Gov. C. L. “Butch” Otter said he has struggled trying to designate a five-mile wide corridor through his state which would allow for companies to build high-voltage power lines, natural gas pipelines and other energy infrastructure “without going through that same bureaucratic process, ‘Mother-may-I’s.’ ” But he has had trouble working across the multitude of federal agencies which oversea land use in the nation.

“It sounds like what might make sense is some sort of interagency siting team,” said Mrs. Browner during an exchange with Mr. Otter. She said the team might look something like the Council on Environmental Quality, a White House team that coordinates environmental policy.

“Let us think about it; sort of a one-stop agency,” she said.

The need to build power lines in one state, to deliver energy to another state, with seemingly little benefit for the state with the majority of transmission infrastructure is a routine problem.

Mr. Reid, who has pushed proposals to expand FERC’s power to build new transmission lines, said Wednesday that he does not expect to introduce legislation, rather that the Obama administration should rewrite federal rules to give FERC more power.

“I think that a lot can be done administratively. I don’t think we need a lot of new laws,” Mr. Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said on a conference call with reporters.

But Energy Secretary Steven Chu hedged on what the Obama administration would likely do, saying that he’d like to hear from stakeholders.

While there is broad bipartisan support for expanding the federal government’s transmission power, there is also a general understanding among Democrats and Republicans that extending the grid should not proceed unless state regulators and their opponents come to terms.

“15,000 new miles of transmission lines will result in about 15,000 new lawsuits,” said Sen. John Barasso, Wyoming Republican, half-mockingly at a Senate hearing earlier this month.

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