Victory with a Capital “T”

Think of the extra-high voltage transmission grid like the interstate highway system—and take yourself back to the 1950’s when the idea of connecting the nation’s citizen and commerce through a vast road network was nothing more than lines on a map.

It is almost impossible to imagine the country today without this important system in place that spurs commerce, transports goods, and allows our country the freedom to drive from coast to coast. In many ways, when it comes to planning the electricity grid for a 21st century economy, we are at the same juncture in 2011, with the exception being that the sources of our electricity are debated—how should we plan for renewable energy? TWS and other environmental organizations have invested in better understanding what comprehensive energy planning for clean electricity sources looks like—and it will pay dividends in the future.

That is why last week’s victory with a capital “T”ransmission was great. As of May 2nd, the federal government passed on its last opportunity to try to overturn the Ninth Circuit’s decision on National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors (NIETC). In February, the Ninth Circuit found that the Department of Energy (DOE) had failed to engage in proper environmental review and did not follow the statutory requirement to consult with states prior to designating NIETCs. In 2007, DOE designated 220 cities and counties in ten states as part of the nation’s first two NIETCs – giving electric utilities in these areas options to override state authority for the siting of high-voltage transmission lines by appeal to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and to condemn lands for new lines. The NIETCs did not take renewable energy into consideration, supporting transmission of coal power instead.

Following up on the concerns about the NIETC program voiced since 2007, Members of Congress wrote letters to the Department of Justice (DOJ) requesting that the 9th Circuit’s decision not be challenged. Leaders in Congress who urged DOJ not to dispute this important decision included Congressman Raul Grijalva from the 7th District of Arizona, Congressman Maurice Hinchey from the 22nd District of New York, and Congressman Gerald Connolly from the 11th District of Virginia. The Representatives’ efforts show not only the importance of this decision, but also a commitment by some of our best supporters to a vision of a clean energy economy that places environmental considerations upfront in the planning process.

The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act issued in a new era of more inclusive energy planning. Through a DOE-funded grant, stakeholders from all sectors of the electricity industry—including a robust effort from the environmental community—are currently involved in a multi-year exercise to study different transmission build-outs across the interconnections. Although this process has required a bold effort on the part of many voices to advocate for planning to be directed towards clean air goals and earlier discussion of lands and wildlife resources, it represents a major step in the right direction, and a whole-hearted change from the NIETC program. Winning the 9th Circuit case only solidifies that good planning—planning for a 21st century grid—is a process that involves a wide host of stakeholders and takes into consideration the clean energy resources that we need to build going forward.

This blog post was co-authored by Nada Culver and Liese Dart.