Forget FERC, look to USDA for grid solutions

By Pam Boschee, Managing Editor

The familiar verse from a patriotic song, “this land is my land, this land is your land” is definitely not referring to the majority of landowners’ attitudes when it comes to siting transmission lines on their property.

Building new transmission lines appears to be the next industry boom. New generation has been clipping along at a good pace-some are describing it as too good, perhaps leading to overcapacity-and now finding a way to move the electricity to where it’s needed is inevitably going to be the next problem or, depending on one’s perspective, the next opportunity.

In south Texas, landowners formed a group called LOCATE-Land Owners Concerned About Transmission Lines. The LOCATE folks raised issues worthy of consideration. Is it fair to invoke eminent domain to help private competition? They contend it is an abuse of state power. Also, the thorny issue of health hazards won’t be ignored.

This controversy is not new, but I think creative solutions will circumvent the need to build as many new lines that at first glance may seem to be necessary.

For example, Idaho Power Co. recently had success in curtailing irrigation pumping to conserve the region’s power. Four hundred forty-four Idaho farmers idled 154,000 acres in return for $79 million in payments from Idaho Power Co. Farmers in eastern Idaho stopped 500 pumps watering 45,000 acres in return for compensation from PacifiCorp.

This agricultural angle suggests another solution. It may be time for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to consider becoming involved in transmission.

Consider that crop prices have been dismal over the last several years. For example, corn is hovering around $1.50 per bushel this year, having been nearly $5 per bushel just a few years ago. Many rural landowners are harvesting crops right now on land that doesn’t hold promise of much value in terms of traditional income. However, these lands also tend to be the beckoning wide-open spaces so well suited to giant lattice towers of steel.

Consider also that the USDA in mid-August announced that it would begin making more than $5 billion in supplemental payments to about 1.4 million producers as a result of President Bush’s signing into law the agricultural economic assistance package.

Some of these struggling landowners might be persuaded to play hosts to transmission if the price were right. Admittedly, line routes and layers of logistics would need to be hammered out, but it might offer an alternative.

The Department of Energy and USDA offer some deep pockets; combining DOE’s research and development funding for technology with the suggested USDA incentive for transmission siting might provide a strong jumpstart for solutions-at least on a regional basis.

You may think this is an absurd suggestion, surely tongue-in-cheek. But, don’t underestimate the lengths to which politicians will go to gain favor. Just as California’s generation troubles spawned interesting political proposals and remarks, so too will the crisscross of transmission.

It’s quite possible that “you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.”

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