Tying up loose ends: What FERC’s new order for transmission lines means for the lands we value

In the midst of the debt ceiling debate, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a new rule to guide how to plan and pay for new transmission lines.

Few things are made crystal clear in this bulky 650 page document, but two pieces of the rule stand out as major, if not transformative, improvements: first, grid planning has to take into consideration public policy goals (e.g., renewable portfolio standards and potentially land and wildlife conservation) and, second, regional planners were given a set a principles to allocate costs for new transmission lines—costs based on improving reliability, accessing cheaper power, or meeting renewable or other public policy goals. As I recently heard one transmission developer describe this change, “in the past we’ve been building the next little increment when it comes to the grid. We need to consider how to build a grid to meet 21st century policy goals and trends.”

All in all, this is a progressive rule, and if you support renewable energy, it’s pretty hard not to be optimistic about how renewables could become a real part of a new transmission system.  According to FERC Chairman John Wellinghoff, our national electric reliability organization estimates that in the next decade, sixty percent of our new electricity supply brought online will come from variable resources such as wind and solar. Order 1000 provides a guidebook for regions to figure out how to pay for new transmission lines that can bring renewables online -- that makes it a real game changer.

Why is The Wilderness Society excited about this? Transmission lines have a huge impact on both energy use and land. As we’ve said time and again, we should be building only what we need to tap our best renewable energy assets, and we must do so in a way that protects sensitive wildlife and wild lands. We want to make sure that early transmission planning both supports a transition to renewable energy and takes into account how best to protect land and wildlife right from the start. Traditionally lands and wildlife impacts have not been accounted for in planning driven entirely by economic and reliability concerns—in other words, they have had no value in these processes. Because this rule directs planners to include public policy goals in planning, it creates the opportunity to advocate for lands and wildlife policies to be considered in planning exercises, well before transmission solutions are solidified.

Through this rule, FERC is requiring more regional planning, while at the same time affirming a process that includes consideration of state and federal policy goals. However, FERC has not defined what those goals ought to be. Chairman Wellinghoff stated in a recent interview, “public policy could involve other issues with respect to ensuring that economic interests are served. It could involve environmental issues as well, such as the new EPA environmental regulations that may come into effect, and ensuring that those are met in ways that reliability is served.” There is a delicate balance at play between moving the country towards new sources of renewable energy, and protecting the landscapes we care so deeply about. The challenge moving forward, is finding that sweet spot - which is where The Wilderness Society will be focusing our efforts.