PacifiCorp gets green light during a tough era
- May 27, 2022 5:36 pm GMT
Yesterday, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management announced that they’d given PacifiCorp permission to continue its Energy Gateway South Transmission project. The 416-mile power line is planned to run through Wyoming, Colorado, and into Utah. The Gateway South line is part of the utility’s broader plan to install 2,000 miles of transmission lines across the West.
Projects such as the Gateway South line are desperately needed if the U.S. is to transition away from fossil fuels. The grid, as it stands, is outdated and not interconnected enough to get renewable energy from where it’s produced to where it’s consumed. As it was pointed out in an Atlantic article last year: “Since 2009, China has built more than 18,000 miles of ultrahigh-voltage transmission lines. The U.S. has built zero.”
And while the recent greenlight for PacifiCorp is encouraging, it comes at a moment when other important transmission projects around the country are being held up or scrapped altogether.
The New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) has been perhaps the most high profile of embattled transmission projects. For those who don’t know, NECEC is a transmission line that would transport hydropower from Quebec to the Massachusetts grid. The NECEC would have a big impact on Massachusetts’ energy portfolio. The transmission project promised to transport 9.45 million MWh of electricity from Hydro-Quebec to Massachusetts every year. That would account for around 8% of the electricity used in all of New England, powering close to 1.2 million homes.
However the project has been brought to a standstill and risks never being completed. Opponents, a mix concerned residents, environmental groups, Native American tribes, and rival utilities, successfully got Maine voters to pass a measure that halted the project last November. On May 10th, the referendum’s legality will be decided on by the state’s supreme court.
In New York, too, a power line that would help NYC re-transition to clean power (the Indian Point nuclear plant used to provide tons of clean power to the city but environmentalists successfully lobbied to have it closed last year) is also at risk of being derailed by similar community mechanisms. The conflict is detailed in a recent Grist article:
“The Champlain Hudson Power Express — or CHPE, pronounced “Chippy” — will do something similar: it will funnel clean energy into the city via a transmission line, part of which will be buried under the Hudson River. But the power CHPE will bring in isn’t local — it’s sourced from Canada, where dams owned by a company called Hydro-Québec generate a bounty of electricity. To meet its climate goals, the city has approved the construction of a 339-mile power cable carrying that excess hydropower from Québec all the way to Queens. This project, however, has faced stiff opposition from environmentalists and community groups, who argue that it outsources clean energy and jobs to a different country; from First Nations in Canada, who allege the company’s dams perpetrate environmental harms on Indigenous communities in Québec; and from critics who say hydropower isn’t as clean as its proponents claim.”
In a recent Atlantic article, the reason for our sorry transmission system (and housing and public transportation crises) is explored. The author blames community input processus that allow a small minority to block important projects that would deliver big net benefits to society. Here’s how he explains it:
“The community-input process is disastrous for two broad reasons. First, community input is not representative of the local population. Second, the perception of who counts as part of an affected local community tends to include everyone who feels the negative costs of development but only a fragment of the beneficiaries.
Not everybody is a complainer, but pretty much everyone who shows up to community meetings is. Katherine Einstein, David Glick, and Maxwell Palmer, Boston University political scientists and co-authors of Neighborhood Defenders, examined zoning and planning meetings across Massachusetts. They found that a measly 14.6 percent of people who showed up to these events were in favor of the relevant projects. Meeting participants were also 25 percentage points more likely to be homeowners and were significantly older, maler, and whiter than their communities.”
Although there’s been talk at the federal level about speeding up the sitting processus for transmission projects, few tangible changes have materialized to date. More discouragingly, the chatter coming out of places like FERC is usually littered with promises to defer to community voices. It sounds inclusive, it sounds progressive, but as explained in the above paragraphs, community input in the U.S. is often just the opposite.
The inclusive, environmentally sound move right now is to rebuild the country’s transmission system to provide citizens with clean, reliable energy. That’s the bottom line.
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