By - Jim Vess

New Electric Transmission: Why Does It Take So Long to Complete?

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By Jim Vess

On December 19, 2014, after a four-year delay, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) made available the draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the Boardman to Hemingway Transmission Line project for review and comment through March 19, 2015. Open houses for the DEIS were held in the first part of January 2015.

When they are completed, two major transmission projects – Boardman to Hemingway (B2H) and Gateway West – would set the stage for the next-generation power grid in the western United States with increased reliability and capacity. The new transmission lines would move 1,500 megawatts of electricity across Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon. In the summer the lines would transfer power from Pacific Northwest generation to customers in Idaho and in the winter would serve western Pacific Northwest customers during their peak usage time.

The B2H project, proposed by Idaho Power, PacifiCorp, and Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), is an approximately 300-mile 500 kV transmission line from a proposed substation near Boardman, Oregon to the Hemingway Substation near Melba, Idaho. B2H, originally scheduled to be in service in 2018, is now estimated by Idaho Power to have an in-service date of 2020 or beyond.

Gateway West, a Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power project, is approximately 1,000-mile transmission line between the Windstar substation near Glenrock, Wyoming and the Hemingway Substation in Idaho. The project would include 150 miles of 230 kV lines in Wyoming and 850 miles of 500 kV lines in Wyoming and Idaho. The project is scheduled to be completed between 2020 and 2024.

Both projects have wide support from the utility industry, the Obama administration and environmentalists as a means to access new sources of renewable energy and better handle regional power surpluses.

So why is it taking over a decade to get these lines built and put into service?

It’s for the birds: New rules protecting the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area and efforts to conserve sage grouse habitat have delayed the projects.

Idaho Power worked with Idaho and Oregon residents to resolve many of the B2H route challenges and develop acceptable routes, reducing the number of possible routes from 48 to just three. One-third of the proposed route is on public land, but sage grouse habitat conflicts have made it difficult to route more of the line through public land.

The Gateway West project route from Glenrock, Wyoming, to Twin Falls, Idaho, has BLM approval. The decision on the routes between there and the Hemingway Substation was deferred after BLM completed rules for managing National Landscape Conservation Areas as required by the 2009 Omnibus Lands Act, which set rules for siting rights of way across conservation areas, such as the Morley Nelson area. The BLM could have a draft plan out in June with a final decision on the Morley Nelson roués in 2016.

Just trying to keep people happy: Some residents have opposed both projects saying the transmission lines – with towers up to 190 feet high – will be an eyesore and hurt farm operations. Opponents would prefer the lines on federal lands. At $1.5 million to $2.5 million per mile, the utilities want to minimize costs that would have to be passed on to customers.

Idaho counties must approve the routes in their counties. In Oregon, the Department of Energy has authority for transmission facility siting. Oregon will not hold hearings until the BLM chooses the final B2H route, which means further delays.

The Idaho counties of Cassia and Power oppose the BLM-approved Gateway West route through their counties. The counties proposed an alternate route, but BLM rejected it because it would run through high priority sage grouse habitat, which the BLM route avoids. This results in additional delays while a compromise is found.

The ability to provide additional capacity for transmitting power between the Pacific Northwest and the Intermountain West make the B2H project Idaho Power’s top priority.

Routing complications and delays – it’s all for the birds, but these and other issues are setbacks most new transmission development must face in order to build the grid of the future.

For more on these transmission projects and others, check out EUCI’s 7th Annual Western Transmission Summit February 19-20, 2015 in San Diego, CA.

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