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Fixing a messed up process in California -- Tranmission bottleneck solution causes instant controversy

California's Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative (RETI) is already stirring controversy even before the full coordinating committee meets for the first time. The California Wind Energy Association (CalWEA) is warning that such a major new initiative will bring transmission capacity allocation for new wind projects to a grinding halt. On the other side of the fence, RETI supporters argue that it is time for a major rethink on how to provide transmission for renewables electricity. Meantime, at least some of the state's major wind project developers are straddling a middle ground believing the time is ripe to fix a broken interconnection queue, RETI or not.

RETI was born partly from an earlier state effort; a multi-stakeholder push to provide transmission to wind resources in the Tehachapi Pass (Windpower Monthly, November 2006). RETI takes that plan to a state-wide level, expands it to all renewable energy resources and aims to catalogue where they exist and where transmission wires are needed to unlock as much of the potential as possible. A meeting late last month is expected to have identified the members of a coordinating committee to start the process.

CalWEA is concerned that work on RETI will take scarce technical resources away from interconnection studies for wind energy projects already lined up in the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) interconnection queue -- a repository where all energy projects already seek approval for grid connection. The association's Nancy Rader questions the need for a vast, bureaucratic study between many state agencies to determine the best renewable energy resource potential when well over 40,000 MW of projects have already been submitted to the queue. Rader says this extensive list provides more than an adequate snapshot of where the best resources exist.

Legal questions

She also questions whether the plan has any legal basis since no new law empowers the state agencies to form and implement RETI. There is also the question of legal due process with regards to the CAISO interconnection studies already underway. One transmission study for renewables has already been derailed. Southern California Edison (SCE) requested permission from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to spend $6 million to study the feasibility of building new wires to access wind and solar resources located in six southern California regions, including projects submitted to the CAISO queue. The CPUC denied SCE's request on the basis that such a study should be rolled into the larger RETI plan.

The CPUC says RETI will help to identify and permit the transmission projects most needed. "Such a process, however, must begin with a thorough, stakeholder-vetted assessment and comparison of all of California's resources, including those that, for whatever reason, are not represented in the CAISO interconnection queue," says the CPUC.

This point riles Rader. "Never mind the fact that companies have been scouring the state for good project sites and have already identified forty-thousand megawatt, we're going to go out there and second guess them. The [RETI] effort contradicts existing statutes and existing rules in California about how projects are selected and how transmission gets built."

The initial RETI transmission study contract was awarded to the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies (CEERT). The organisation's Rich Ferguson says he is aware of the unease felt by developers who already have projects in the existing transmission queue, who fear they may get demoted by the bigger RETI study. "Everybody has vowed not to let that happen, but we're aware of the issue. I really don't see the problem. The problem is the current process, RETI or not, is totally messed up."

Broken system

Hal Romanowitz with Oak Creek Energy Systems, a wind developer in the Tehachapi area that has secured power purchase agreements for 1500 MW of wind together with Australian investor Allco, agrees the system is broken. He believes RETI can move forward at the same time as the current CAISO queue study process is speeded up.

RETI will only allow one person to represent wind interests, so Romanowitz is backing Dariush Shirmohammadi, former CAISO head of transmission planning for southern California. Wind developer Enxco also backs the selection. "The queue needs to be resolved first so we're putting a major focus on getting the queue integrated with the traditional planning process so that major transmission will go forward near term," says Romanowitz. "We've got a solution on the table and this is something that's gonna move."

Need for action

The stalled transmission queue is making it unlikely the state's utilities will succeed in complying with the state's Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS) law, which calls for 20% of utility power to come from renewables by 2010 and 33% by 2020. The state's current total has been flat at 11% for the past four years.

Ferguson backs any attempt to unlock the transmission queue and believes the complementary RETI process is worthwhile. "I still think it's useful to do proactive stuff rather than to just react to what is in the queue and take a long term look because we've got to get this stuff into planning mode and start getting actual plans and service and permits in the next three and four years or we're never going to make 2020." The ongoing Tehachapi effort could unlock as much as 4500 MW of new wind power to contribute to the goals. "Depending on whose fantasy of what California will do with renewable energy, we need like five or six times that much to satisfy greenhouse gas fantasies -- plus some of the state agencies are using the 33% (RPS) target, so we're going to need a lot more."

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