RETI Paves Way for Transmission Project Development in California


The development of transmission lines to large scale renewable projects in remote parts of California has made little progress in recent years due to difficult jurisdictional and political battles.  Into the fray steps the Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative, which is implementing a targeted planning strategy to reduce some of the conflict.  VerdeX was pleased to speak with Dave Olsen, director of RETI, about the progress made by this statewide collaborative.

You presently serve as the coordinator for the California Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative (RETI).  What is the mission and agenda of this organization?

The Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative (RETI) is a statewide planning collaborative directed by a 30-member stakeholder committee with representatives from every transmission owner and every utility company that delivers electricity to residences and businesses.  The committee includes representatives from all of the renewable generating companies for power, solar, geothermal, and biomass that are active in California.  It also includes representatives of environmental organizations, consumers, the military, tribal organizations within the state, and the state and federal permitting agencies—which include the California Public Utilities Commission, the California Energy Commission, the Bureau of Land Management, and the United States Forest Service. 

There is a large steering committee that represents a real diversity of perspectives.  The idea is that if all of these different constituencies can agree on where we should build generation and where we should site transmission lines to access that renewable generation, then the decision-makers who must approve these lines will be able to do so with less opposition and controversy.

How difficult is it to align all of these interests and find the most effective and least environmentally destructive sites and corridors for renewable energy generation projects?

Very difficult.  The lack of transmission is the key barrier to meeting the state’s renewable energy and carbon reduction goals.  California has huge amounts of solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass resources, but the best and lowest-cost resources are in areas that require transmission be built to them.  Rather than building transmission willy-nilly, the idea behind RETI is to first identify small geographic areas—renewable energy zones—that have very high densities of solar radiation, wind power, and quality geothermal areas, and confine generation development to those zones. 

So, we are not developing everywhere across the California landscape; we are only developing the electricity generation in small geographic areas.  That does several important things. It minimizes the environmental impact of developing these renewable resources and minimizes the cost.  Instead of building many transmission lines, we build lines only through these small geographic areas capable of generating a lot of the electricity in one place.

There are many interests that oppose any development or that oppose development in particular areas.  A lot of the agencies have statutory responsibility to ensure that any development in the areas they manage is carefully controlled and complies with not only the applicable laws but also respects the ecosystem requirements for developing in these areas.  If we have the California Department of Fish and Game for state lands and the United States Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service on federal lands, we to approach development in a way that makes it possible for those agencies to support it.

But then we have all of the environmental groups who are concerned about protecting particular areas of the state.  We have to design our projects in ways that make it possible to minimize environmental impact so we can have environmental groups support development rather than oppose it.

How close is California to the goal of meeting a 33 percent RPS by 2020 and of adding 20,000 megawatts of renewable power to our state grid?

The RETI collaborative has made good progress toward that by identifying a series of renewable energy zones across the state.  We have identified more than 20,000 megawatts that could be developed, and we have ranked them both economically and in terms of environmental concerns.  We have a much better idea than we did a couple of years ago as to where the priority areas should be for this development.  We have many, many proposed projects.  The independent generation companies who build the wind and solar projects are active in these areas.  They are prepared to build the projects quickly.  What they need is additional transmission.  RETI is now at the point where there are specific transmission projects that we’ve identified or have laid the groundwork for them to be identified.

What transmission projects are on the top of this list?

The very first projects that RETI identified are what we call foundation lines—additions to the state electricity backbone grid.  They make it possible to move renewable power from Southern California to Northern California.  Most of the remaining renewable potential in the state is in the southern part of the state.  There is a need to move that power, not only to Los Angeles, but also to the Bay Area, Sacramento, and the Central Valley.  The first projects are foundation lines that go through the Central Valley to make it possible to deliver Southern California’s renewable energy to the north.

The specific transmission projects will have to be proposed by individual transmission owners, whether by Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric, or independent transmission companies—non-utility companies specializing in building transmission.  Now that RETI has identified a set of potential transmission lines to access these renewable energy zones, the individual companies who specialize in building the lines will have to propose specific transmission projects.  RETI will be involved in that.  If the projects are designed in ways that accommodate all of the interests included on the RETI steering committee, there will be broad public support for building these lines.  That would make it possible to approve these lines much faster than it would be without this public involvement.

Is there a map of these transmission line opportunities?

The Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative released the Phase II Final Report in August of this year.  That report has many maps of both the renewable energy zones and the potential transmission lines that would access the highest ranking of those zones.  That report and those maps are available on the RETI website, which is on the California Energy Commission website.  We hope that everyone interested or concerned with generation and renewable energy development in California will look at the report.

What needs to happen to expedite the approval and development of infrastructure required for California to meet its generation and transmission goals, as well as its greenhouse gas mitigation goals?

Individual transmission companies will have to propose projects.  As they propose those projects, they can do it in a way that will either invite litigation and opposition, or they can design their projects to anticipate local and environmental concerns.  If they do the latter they will have a much faster path toward approval.  What the Public Utilities Commission doesn’t want is to have a transmission project brought to them for approval and have tremendous public controversy because the transmission project has not been designed to minimize environmental and cultural impacts on local communities.  Then there is litigation and challenges to Public Utilities Commission decisions that extends the timeline.  RETI is trying to expedite approval by having better designed projects.

What will be RETI’s next set of activities?

We will be working with individual transmission owners to help them design specific projects that have exact geographic routings.  That means helping the transmission project developer, working with the counties, and working with local concerns and permitting agencies to make sure the projects are designed with input from all of the stakeholders.

With RETI’s process moving to the next phase, what is the projected timeline?  Is the goal still 2020?

2020 is very much the goal.  There are some projects that could be approved in the next two or three years and built two years after that.  There are possibly two to four projects that could be built by 2015.  That would enable an initial amount of the 20,000 megawatts that we need to get to 33 percent renewable energy.  Maybe half of that could be available in the 2015-1016 time frame.  The remaining three or four major transmission projects needed could be approved and built for service by 2020.   We have a very good chance of meeting the 2020 goal, both for carbon reduction and for renewable energy generation in place by 2020.  It is going to require all of the agencies, parties, and interests working together collaboratively.  If we don’t do that, the chances of having this done by 2020 are not nearly as good.

The LADWP recently backed off its involvement with the Great Path North transmission line.  Can you give us some context for this decision?

The Great Path North was originally intended to bring geothermal power from the Salton Sea in Imperial County to the Los Angeles area.  That line was controversial for many reasons.  There were several alternative routings. From the Salton Sea, where there are tremendous geothermal resources, to Los Angeles, there are areas of pristine, undisturbed desert land.  One of these possible routings would have gone through a pristine desert area in the Morongo Basin.  That was very strongly opposed by desert protection advocates, for understandable reasons.  Another possible routing would have entailed widening an existing transmission corridor that goes through the center of the cities in the Banning Pass.  There would have been a lot of impact.  Many structures would have had to be relocated or torn down to make it possible to accommodate another transmission line alongside the existing line.  There is tremendous controversy around all those routings.  Partly in response to that, and partly in response to solar development opportunities, LADWP now appears to be focused on bringing in solar power from the Owens Valley rather than geothermal power from the Salton Sea.

LADWP hasn’t abandoned plans for the Great Path North.  Los Angeles worked very hard to find ways to minimize the impact of bringing power from the Salton Sea to Los Angeles.  That may be an option at some future point.  There may be ways to design projects like it that avoid or minimize those kinds of impacts.  But there are variable impacts with transmission.  Transmission is almost always controversial wherever it is proposed.

The Province of Ontario, Canada made a radical turn and endorsed feed-in tariffs to encourage conversion to renewables.  California has not yet embraced distributed energy, will it?

It is a possibility in California.  I would certainly point out that the solar radiation in California is much superior to that in Ontario, meaning that the electricity produced by the rooftop photovoltaics in California are lower in cost than what will be installed in Ontario.  I applaud Ontario for doing this.  Ontario has the same latitude and same type of solar radiation as Germany, who is the world leader in photovoltaics and feed-in tariffs.  Feed-in tariffs are certainly a possibility in California.  There is rule-making at the Public Utilities Commission now on exactly this point.  Everyone interested in clean power wants to support this.  It is a good mechanism.  It must be designed carefully, but it is an important mechanism to spread and accelerate the installation of local photovoltaics. 

If we do as much of the rooftop photovoltaics as we can, as fast as we can, we still will need large-scale wind, solar, and geothermal resources.  We can’t rely on building and install the photovoltaics as quickly as possible.  They are still expensive even though the cost has gone down.  They are still much more expensive on an installed basis than the wind, solar, and geothermal resources we have in bulk.  If we are going to meet our goals for 2020 we are going to need all of the rooftop photovoltaics we can have installed by that time and at least something close to 20,000 megawatts in wind, solar, and geothermal generation.

What is at stake here? Why should people be paying attention to RETI?  How might the public make a good assessment of benefits and costs?

To meet the goals that the public supports—the goals in the Governor’s Executive Orders and the goals in AB 32—by 2020 requires several major new transmission projects be built in the state, even if the state does the maximum amount of energy efficiency programs and installs rooftop photovoltaics as fast as it can.  Finding open land is very difficult because of development in many parts of the state.  Agriculture interests, tribal interests, environmental protection requirements, and habitat and wildlife migration corridors protect much of the open land.  It is very difficult to find routings for new transmission lines. 
All of the affected constituencies can be involved in the RETI process and provide their input so that the RETI collaborative helps to design projects that avoid those concerns or are responsive to those concerns.  The public has a way to have input.  Most of the public has made it very clear that they strongly support clean energy goals and making the transition to a clean energy economy for air quality benefits, carbon reduction benefits, and economic development benefits.  People want to have more wind, geothermal, and solar power and less fossil power.  Anyone who supports those goals needs to help us figure out how to make it possible.  How do we get this generation built?  How do we get the transmission built?  None of this can happen without the transmission being built. 

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Lastly, many observers have asserted that Silo thinking dominates California politics: everyone protects their own interests and finding little incentive for collaboration. Isn’t that the serious obstacle that needs to be overcome?

It is an obstacle.  The diplomatic way to put it is that people look at the primary concerns from their perspective.  The broader public benefits to the statewide economy and the statewide environment is more difficult to see.  That is the value of a collaborative like RETI, which includes constituencies that represent the environment, the economy, the utilities, and the state agencies.  Having those constituencies together makes it possible to understand other perspectives and the impacts to then come up with a solution that has the least possible amount of compromise.  There will be compromises—of course.  Anytime you route transmission there have to be compromises made because of the environmental, cultural, and community impacts.  We want to come up with solutions that require the fewest compromises and have the broadest support.

It is going to require leadership.  With people who are thinking only of protecting a narrow set of self interests when there is a much broader set of public interests—it is going to take leadership.  It is going to take leadership from the governor, the Public Utilities Commission, state assembly leaders, state senators, and local and county officials who are willing to look at the tradeoffs between the clean air, carbon reduction, and economic development benefits against the costs of having a transmission line go through their community.