In the US, the Californian desert and the Mid-West plains are ideal locations for solar and wind energy plants. In the UK the Scottish Highlands and Welsh mountains have the highest winds in the UK. These locations have similar characteristics – great resources for renewable energy generation, but limited grid infrastructure and not many people.
Hundreds and in some cases thousands of miles of new expensive, high voltage grid infrastructure is needed in these key locations to transport green energy to areas of high demand – the big cities. This grid infrastructure is both expensive and geographically extensive.
Consenting and funding new high voltage grid lines can take a long time. In the US, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, are arguing for legislation that would give federal officials new powers to approve the grid infrastructure, if the relevant states stall plans to expand the grid.
In the UK grid operators have rights to take easements for power lines across private land – inevitably bringing about controversy. There are also ecological implications to be considered – potential for bird deaths through collision with new power lines mean long drawn out environmental assessment processes must be carried out.
The only way to deliver such infrastructure quickly is by allowing strategic planning at national level. Grid infrastructure crosses state, region and district boundaries delivering wind energy from North Dakota to Minneapolis and Chicago, and from the Scottish Highlands to the south. Paying for and planning this infrastructure is impractical at a local or single company level.
Reid has put forward a bill obligating US states to identify ‘renewable energy zones’ in places where renewable energy resources such as wind and solar are in abundance. States would then identify where new high voltage grid lines would be most appropriate and a strategy for funding the delivery of the infrastructure. If states fail to complete this task within a year, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would have the power to intervene and identify locations for the grid infrastructure. Pelosi confirmed that the US needs “a national framework for planning, developing and financing transmission infrastructure… we cannot let 231 state regulators hold up progress“. Concerns however have already been highlighted in the US press about high rate increases as a result of the new lines.
Pelosi said “They (the States) should be given every opportunity to see if we can work this out through the state regulators. If that can’t be done, I think there are very few alternatives for the American people.” Reid’s plan is set to be put forward in the summer as part of the energy and climate package.
Examples of grid projects already being stalled are San Diego Gas & Electric’s 250 km line through the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California. Changes have been made to the route, but it is still waiting for approval from regulators and court challenges are likely.
In the UK the proposed 220 km line from Beauly, west of Inverness in the north to Denny west of Falkirk to the south has been subject to 17,000 objections. The Sunday Herald today reported that the wind energy industry is putting mounting pressure on the Scottish government to permit the £320 million line within the next few weeks or else the prospects for wind power in the north of Scotland will be severely damaged.
Jason Ormiston, chief exec of Scottish Renewables, representing the wind energy industry said “This is a litmus test for the Scottish government’s credentials on climate change.
“If anti-pylon groups push government into unnecessary delay on Beauly-Denny it will mean a high cost in terms of carbon emissions and disaster for the renewables sector.”
The Scottish government said that the Beauly-Denny inquiry report was now under detailed consideration. The Herald reported that Ministers are expected to take a decision as soon as possible. A government spokesman said “Since the Beauly-Denny planning application was submitted in the period of the previous administration, this Scottish government has put in place much swifter planning procedures.”