Up in the Air: Transmission Siting Still Contentious

by Dr. Robert Wasserstrom and Susan Reider, Terra Group

Transmission projects will continue to face significant challenges from local groups and environmental organizations unless developers and regulators create more transparent siting processes. This finding was underlined in a new study by the Terra Group and The University of Texas Center for Energy Economics. “Electric Transmission and Carbon Reduction: A Survey of Environmental Leaders and State Regulators,” released in late January, surveyed state and federal regulators, environmental leaders and industry representatives.

The latest report updates a 1996 Terra Group study. At that time, few nontraditional stakeholders were interested in transmission projects. During the past 15 years, however, discussion about high-voltage transmission lines has shifted from localized concerns (e.g., property values and electric and magnetic fields (EMFs)) to a debate about U.S. energy policy.

New players—including the federal government, national environmental groups, academics, Washington think tanks, trade associations and power generators—shape public debate about transmission siting and need. The report also confirmed earlier findings about potentially controversial facilities: If the siting process isn’t perceived as fair, many people still will oppose anything that impacts them.

While national and regional discussions focus on planning, keeping the lights on requires transmission projects, said Dr. Michelle Michot Foss, director of the Center for Energy Economics.

“We’re interested in the challenges that regulators face to balance need, cost allocation, their own states’ RPS (renewable portfolio standards) and siting for interstate projects,” she said.

The study found that no nationwide consensus among regulators exists on transmission siting—except that nearly all state regulators remain opposed to greater federal transmission routing and siting authority. They are concerned about cost, unmanageable procedures and the enormous gap between local customers and federal bureaucrats.

Most state regulators agree that the country’s grid needs to be improved, but the agreement ends there. Some think that their own pieces of the grid are adequate to meet future demand, or nearly so. Taking into account their renewable and energy efficiency goals, for example, commissioners in three densely populated eastern states see no need for additional high-voltage transmission lines.

State regulators think almost unanimously that Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)-sited lines will be too expensive. The problem is that FERC is looking at a grand design, the transmission superhighway, which will benefit a few states at the expense of others. State authorities have little confidence that state regulators can successfully balance competing needs. As one commissioner put it, “The feds will bigfoot you.”

Many states seem prepared to accept limited benefits from the status quo rather than take a chance on unproven benefits from green superhighways at a potentially huge cost to ratepayers. Federal officials often perceive this resistance as parochialism, but under many current planning scenarios, it might be entirely reasonable.

We understand this reluctance as a form of prisoner’s dilemma. Each state receives an assured but limited benefit from noncooperation, although the benefits of cooperation among several states could be much greater. The main problem is uncertainty. There could be a reason to preempt state authority if it’s part of a larger plan, but one doesn’t exist, a state official said.

Despite suspicion about federal mandates, nearly all state regulators agree that FERC should retain backstop siting authority with eminent domain powers. They think this might make their siting job easier, although they hope it is only used as a last resort.

State regulators also face questions about demand in a slower economy. The current recession has called historical load forecasting into question. No one knows how to predict short-term or medium-term demand growth in today’s market. Many regulators expect growth will remain in the 1.5 to 2 percent annual range and might never again reach its historical average of 3 percent. Most utility commissions continue to rely on power companies for forecasting data. This has led some regulatory staff members and environmental leaders to suspect that companies are putting their thumbs on the scale or using outlier estimates to justify inflated transmission investments. FERC’s rate candy for certain transmission projects (a guaranteed 12-14 percent rate of return) has only deepened these suspicions.

In general, national environmental groups support changes to the grid that most quickly achieve the largest carbon reduction at the lowest cost by increasing energy efficiency, optimization of existing infrastructure and distributed generation. Major national and regional organizations likely will support transmission projects that implement this policy, but they also remain sensitive to local concerns about land use, parks and protected areas, etc. They will continue to pressure transmission planners who they also think are usually biased toward building more infrastructure.

Ten years ago, most opposition to transmission was local. Now we’re seeing national-level environmental organizations taking more active, strategic roles in opposing new transmission projects, primarily lines for coal-generated power. They could become strong allies, however, in new transmission facilities that they can support.

Although environmental leaders differ in details, they share three common assumptions:

  • A new national energy system must ensure safe and reliable, economically affordable and environmentally sustainable electric power. First, this system requires federal legislation to cap carbon emissions.
  • Energy planning should follow a hierarchy of technical and economic options: enhanced energy efficiency, demand response, clean distributed resources and smart grid technologies. New transmission lines should maximize use of existing infrastructure or support development of renewables.
  • Planning must be inclusive and transparent based on the input of all interested electric system stakeholders. It should rely primarily on the analysis of experts with no economic interest in the results. And it should look beyond traditional, wires-based solutions.

Whatever national policies are adopted, however, the study found that energy policymaking and transmission planning is unlikely to build support for individual lines among grassroots groups and land conservationists. Opponents usually are motivated by specific concerns: land use, property values, viewshed, potential impacts on nearby recreational areas or wildlife habitat, etc. And participation in what could become lengthy technical meetings is a challenge for local groups. They often argue that a particular new line is not needed, and where this opinion is shared by national or regional environmental organizations, they may receive outside support and encouragement. Where their opposition conflicts with policy goals of reducing carbon emissions and encouraging renewables, they can expect less help.

Still, regional transmission organization officials and state regulators would be wise to ponder siting challenges soon. For example, the study looked at California’s renewable energy transmission initiative (RETI), which identified potential transmission corridors and renewable energy zones. RETI drew on representatives from industry, government, the environmental community and other key stakeholders. With appropriate modifications, it suggests that a similarly robust, transparent process might be used in the Eastern Interconnection.

Opposition will never disappear. We are a litigious society, and “delay is often victory,” as a community organizing manual from the 1990s pointed out. But a siting process that forges consensus around realistic alternatives can overcome much potential opposition. Properly designed, it will help close the gap between society’s broader environmental goals (such as carbon reduction) and local land-use decisions that will be needed to attain them.

On the Net: Terra Group report:



EPRI Researches Sensor Technologies for Smart Transmission

A December 2009 white paper outlines the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI)’s effort to research and develop sensor technologies and the infrastructure needed to address an aging transmission fleet.

“Sensor Technologies for a Smart Transmission System” touches on EPRI’s efforts in:

  • Application of sensor information,
  • Sensor developments,
  • Communication and sensor data collection,
  • Security,
  • Power harvesting, and
  • Algorithms and data visualization.

Summary of Research Activities

Communication and Data Collection. EPRI is developing and assessing options for communication and data collection from sensors.

  • Substations.

Wireless Sensor Mesh. Substation sensors communicate with each neighboring sensor to form a robust communication mesh that has many redundant paths. It is flexible to allow for easy addition of sensors. EPRI research has focused on building upon new industrial hardware and developing software and hardware to make sensors as useful and intelligent as possible within a substation environment. A wireless sensor mesh of 75 nodes that has been deployed has been in operation since 2008. This mesh is being expanded to 150 nodes to research the impact of large mesh populations on power consumption and data traffic.

Wireless Point to Point. EPRI has investigated commercially available, wireless point-to-point solutions in substation deployments of wireless sensor meshes. The research focus has been on specific issues related to substation use, such as cybersecurity, electrical interference and challenges posed by transmission paths blocked by many metal structures.

  • Transmission Lines.
  • Direct Communication From Sensors. Individual sensors communicate back to a central storage and processing location using radio frequency satellite or cell phone networks. This is generally simple to implement, but there are challenges: power required at each sensor, hardware cost and cost of multiple communication paths.
  • High-, Low-speed Rounds Inspection. Installed sensors collect information constantly and process and store the results in peak values or histograms. The data is collected during normal walking and driving patrols (low-speed) or periodic fast flyby inspections. Researchers also are examining the possibility of conducting future inspections by unmanned airborne vehicles (UAVs). The advantage of this approach is that the data collection from the sensors does not require additional communications infrastructure and can be implemented with existing visual inspections. This concept is being demonstrated. Inspection speeds up to 70 mph have been achieved.
  • Wireless Transmission Line Hub. Using this approach, data collection units (hubs) situated at critical structures collect data from wireless sensors within range (two to three structures). Then the data is wirelessly transmitted back to the central data storage and processing location with information from sensors hardwired to the hub, such as cameras and weather stations. Where possible, the sensor data is processed at the hub level and only alarms are communicated. This concept is being demonstrated.
  • Transmission Line Robot. A transmission line inspection robot that travels on the shield wire is being investigated. This robot will optically identify high-risk vegetation, right-of-way encroachment, component condition, location of discharge activity and collect data from deployed sensors. The robot concept is being investigated.
  • Mesh/Daisy Chain. Sensors communicate with one another along the line until the final sensors communicate to a base station installed in a substation or via a hub installed along the line. The advantages of this approach are that the sensor deployment forms part of the sensor communication architecture. It requires small enough distances between sensors to communicate with some sensor redundancy, however. Power considerations also are a challenge. This approach is being developed.

Research and Development

Although sensor technologies are under development or available, they are relatively new and untested. Continual research and development is needed to:

  • Identify and develop new sensor technologies,
  • Improve cost-effectiveness,
  • Increase reliability, and
  • Understand and expand applications.

Much of this research and development requires leadership and a long-term plan. EPRI’s approach to sensor technology development varies by application. Some sensor technologies might be revolutionary long term with widespread deployment but potentially could solve issues at specific locations in the short term. Many sensor technologies and the associated applications are challenging to justify with an 18-month outlook. With a 20-year outlook, however, these technologies can be revolutionary.


Demonstrations and deployments are essential to develop new sensor technologies and understand how their application can benefit the transmission system.

Many demonstrations are needed because failures of transmission components are relatively rare. Many components must be instrumented to obtain sufficient results to draw conclusions that will help develop algorithms to effectively use sensor results.

Multiple demonstrations enable the assessment of sensors over a range of environmental conditions and component configurations. In addition, a range of sensor signatures and trends may be obtained, enabling the development of improved algorithms for alarming and noise rejection.

By demonstrating these new technologies, utilities will be able to potentially resolve some short-term issues, but they will gain experience with the next generation of sensor technologies. This will allow the utilities to guide continued development to meet their specific needs.


Bob Lento is president of information management at Convergys, a global leader in relationship management. He is responsible for the global development and strategy of smart customer information systems solutions for the deployment of smart grid technologies and smart business support systems solutions in the telecommunications industry. Reach him at bob.lento@convergys.com.

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