United States

United States

National corridors come up short -- Transmission disappointment

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What was once viewed as a major opportunity to expand wind power in the US is now largely considered a disappointment. After years of study and vast and varied input, the US Department of Energy (DOE) has proposed the first of a series of much anticipated national electricity transmission corridors. But neither of the first two corridors -- a wide swathe along the Atlantic coast and another in the Southwest -- look likely to open up any major wind resource areas.

"This doesn't do much for wind at all. People pushed the DOE to do more and they really didn't take that push," says one wind industry transmission expert. "I think they came out kind of weak. They are very afraid of the politics of this whole corridor designation." Indeed, so sensitive are the politics of the topic, which cut to the heart of an age-old power struggle between state and federal concerns, that few are prepared to go on record with their comments.

Both the proposed corridors are likely to be approved later this year following a series of public meetings and a public comments process. Once designated, the federal government gains power within the corridors to bulldoze through new transmission projects which it feels are being unduly restricted by local and state concerns. The process is driven by the need to improve America's outdated and under dimensioned transmission network.

From the beginning, the wind industry has been optimistic that a national corridor designation in the right place could unlock new wind power resources stranded by a lack of wires connecting them to areas of demand. The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) pushed particularly hard for a "Heartland Transmission Corridor" to connect strong North and South Dakota wind potential to city centres in the East. But these hopes are largely dashed.

The proposed Mid-Atlantic Area National Corridor includes counties in Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, Virginia, and all of New Jersey, Delaware, and the District of Columbia. The proposed Southwest Area National Corridor includes counties in California, Arizona, and Nevada. Both regions (map) rose to the top of the list as the areas of highest transmission congestion and reliability concerns.

AWEA's Rob Gramlich says his organisation does not have a formal position on either draft corridor, but concedes the decision does not include the sets of corridors in the wind rich Dakotas the association lobbied for. "It's not surprising DOE is focusing on the areas where reliability is most threatened. In order for this policy to succeed, it needs to work in the most critical areas," he says. Others question whether the wind industry was wrong to get its hopes up at the prospect of DOE transmission corridors opening up new wind markets, since the policy was not intended for that purpose.

DOE defence

The DOE is strongly criticised by wind industry members for backing off from being specific in its designations. It failed to endorse any particular transmission project in the two corridors, although many are underway and some will free up untapped wind assets in southern California. DOE spokeswoman Megan Barnett defends the agency's move, saying the two corridors involve areas where there is transmission congestion and constraint, but is deliberately not prescriptive about how to solved those problems. "Renewable energy has been a priority for this administration," she adds.

One small benefit for wind may come in the Southwest where DOE muscle could be employed to overrule the National Forest Service. Although the main federal agency governing state lands is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the forest service plays a role. While the BLM has a policy of offering federal lands for multiple uses, such as energy extraction and transmission, the National Forest Service tends to be against such use.

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