One of the federal government's top energy officials said today that the new Bowersock Mills & Power Co. plant in north Lawrence the best example of an energy project that was partially funded with the federal stimulus program.
“It's clean, it's long-term, and it took a heck of a lot of effort to get it,” said Philip Moeller, one of five members on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, the agency that licensed the new plant. “Compared to a lot of other ones, this one's up and going, and will benefit the citizens for decades to come.”
But Moeller, along with state Rep. Tom Sloan, a Lawrence Republican, said producing renewable energy from plants like the Bowersock dam, or wind farms in western Kansas, is only part of the challenge facing the United States. The bigger challenge, they said, is building transmission systems that can carry that energy to the urban centers where it is most needed.
And that's a challenge, both men said, where state governments, rather than federal regulators, will have to play a leading role.
“That's an issue I'm working on,” Sloan said, while he and Moeller toured the new Bowersock generating plant this morning.
Sloan said he invited Moeller to Lawrence this week to meet informally with officials from other states, as well as utilities and transmission companies, to talk about ways to expand regional and national power grids that can move energy from wind farms in places like sparsely-populated western Kansas to the “load centers” where the need for more energy is the greatest.
“You have all that wind in western Kansas, and for years there was very little transmission between western Kansas and the load centers,” Moeller said. “It's not unique to Kansas. Where the wind blows, there's pretty much not a lot of energy load.”
Moeller said states will need to take the lead in developing transmission grids across state lines because, under current maze of federal energy laws, it's an area where FERC does not have jurisdiction.
While FERC has authority to regulate natural gas pipelines for environmental and safety issues, Moeller said, “We don't have that same authority on electric transmission. We thought we had limited authority out of the 2005 Energy Bill, but two federal courts struck that down based on some murky language.”
“So essentially the problem is, this is interstate commerce, so one state can either block or slow down a power line that benefits another state. That's a very inefficient, costly, risky process,” he said.
State vs. federal role
Sloan said he is working on legislation that would enable multiple states to join compacts in order to streamline the process of getting approval from multiple states for transmission projects that cross state lines.
Under his plan, if a transmission company wanted to build a power line that crosses through four states, then the project would be reviewed by a single panel with representatives from each of those states. Each state would still hold public hearings to receive comments and protests from citizens, but the hearings would be conducted on a single timeline.
The multi-state panel, then, would have authority to approve or deny the construction permit.
“So if (one state) said we don't see any advantage and we vote no, but the others vote yes, the line would go through,” Sloan said. “We're trying to get at the question that Mr. Moeller may not have jurisdiction over, which is, can you get a more regional and national focus on transmission construction.”
Sloan said his bill passed the Kansas House this year, but it was not taken up by the Senate before the session adjourned. But Sloan said he thinks the Senate will pass the bill during the 2014 session that begins in January.
But others, including Sarah Hill-Nelson, owner-operator of the Bowersock power plant, say it might be better simply to give FERC more authority over interstate transmission.
“If FERC had more control over the transmission, isn't that like the crux of the biscuit,” she asked. “We need someone to come in and put in Interstates.”