On Thursday, FERC Acting Chairman Jon Wellinghoff testified before the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on siting of electric transmission lines. Acting Chairman Wellinghoff’s testimony was part of a full committee hearing that included witnesses representing federal and state commissions, transmission and electricity companies, and regional entities.

Acting Chairman Wellinghoff recognized that the “timely siting of electric transmission facilities will be essential to meeting [the] Nation’s goal of reducing reliance on carbon-emitting sources of electric energy and bringing new sources of renewable energy to market.” Wellinghoff later added that everyone, “Congress and Federal and state regulators, including the Commission, must address in a timely manner the issues of transmission planning, transmission siting and transmission cost allocation.”

In order to meet these goals, Wellinghoff stated that there must be federal authority to site and permit a high-voltage infrastructure that will take renewable energy from distant places to metropolitan areas with high demand. He added that the Commission’s experience with siting hydroelectric and natural gas projects has prepared them for expanded authority. The Commission has also learned that granting this authority to a single federal agency is the most efficient way to site major energy projects.

While making his case for the Commission to have expanded authority, Acting Chairman Wellinghoff highlighted some of the steps the Commission has already taken to further develop transmission for renewable energy. Some of these steps include granting transmission rate incentives for projects, approving rates for interstate transmission lines, and implementing new reforms relevant to wind resources and advanced technologies. However, he noted that the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit constrained what was already limited authority granted to the Commission to approve transmission projects (see February 20, 2009 edition of the WER).

In his testimony, Wellinghoff articulated several recommendations for any new legislation that would expand federal transmission siting authority. These recommendations include:

  • Creating a pre-filing process that encourages all relevant parties to identify issues early;
  • Designating one agency to determine the overall public interest;
    Allowing that same agency to set the schedule for all phases of the projects;
  • Creating only one federal record and environmental document for any related decisions;
  • Allowing expeditious review in a single United States court of appeals; and
  • Granting the permittee federal eminent domain to acquire the necessary property for the project.

Acting Chairman Wellinghoff also briefly touched on matters related to expanded transmission authority for each phase of a project. First, before the project begins, there must be effective regional planning that looks beyond the needs of a single project or a single state. Next, while the project is under way, Congress should consider giving the Commission the authority to allocate transmission costs to all load-serving entities. Finally, Wellinghoff stated that the Commission will continue to assure grid reliability and modernize the grid going forward.

A copy of Acting Chairman Wellinghoff’s testimony can be found at: http://www.ferc.gov/EventCalendar/Files/20090312100013-03-12-09-testimony.pdf.