California’s limited electrical transmission system is generating concern lately as clean energy projects outpace planning and construction of infrastructure needed to carry that power to cities.
A recent report by the organization that runs the state’s power grid, California Independent System Operator, or CAISO, says 46 transmission projects will be needed to serve large investments in solar, wind and energy storage it deems necessary to meeting the state’s goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2045.
The problem is, no large-scale transmission projects have been approved in California since 2007, when eastern Kern received clearance for a 9,000-megawatt system, of which only about 2,000 megawatts remain available to carry electrons from new power generation projects.
The urgency of the situation was underlined by a report this month warning the state may miss its climate targets unless more is done to make way for more electrical transmission projects that are sensibly located.
The Center for Energy Efficiency & Renewable Technology, together with tech nonprofit GridLab, said in their report that reform is badly needed to accelerate development of transmission projects and eliminate bottlenecks that put the benefits of federal clean energy subsidies at risk.
Specifically, the report asserts CAISO is in the best position to act as the lead agency on making final determination on the need for individual transmission proposals.
“We cannot let slow and inefficient transmission permitting stand in the way of California's ability to continue to lead in the clean energy transition,” CEERT Policy Coordinator Maia Leroy said in a news release.
The release of the report follows other moves aimed at streamlining the rollout of clean energy projects, including new transmission capacity.
One bill pending in the state Legislature, Senate Bill 420, would direct Gov. Gavin Newsom to name a lead agency to spearhead development of clean energy transmission. Separately, Senate Bill 619 would give the California Energy Commission authority to expedite projects costing at least $250 million over five years.
The CEC said in an email it is already working to enhance planning, streamline permitting and track clean energy projects, including those involving the “supportive infrastructure” required, such as transmission lines.
Commission staff noted that in December the agency signed a three-agency agreement to better align CEC demand forecasting, the California Public Utilities Commission’s oversight of energy procurement and CAISO’s transmission planning.
Representatives of the three agencies explained in a February blog post that CAISO has been receiving electrical interconnection requests from energy developers whose projects are not necessarily in areas that are optimal for additional transmission. The large volume of those applications has made CAISO’s analysis “extraordinarily difficult” to complete in a timely manner.
But the new agreement, they wrote, improves coordination among the agencies, such that instead of reacting to interconnection requests, the state will take a proactive stance to “align queue requests and procurement with those areas of the state best suited for transmission development.”
A CEC spokesman noted by email that a new state law, Assembly Bill 205, streamlined permitting at the agency to speed development of clean energy projects, including transmission.
Lorelei Oviatt, director of Kern’s Planning and Natural Resources Department, expressed frustration that transmission permitting is falling behind the county’s push to diversify its economy with new clean energy projects.
“We need another big, expensive upgrade to (the 2007 project connecting renewable electricity generation in eastern Kern to the state power grid), or we need another line,” Oviatt said.
She added that the 9,000-megawatt project took about six years to plan and about the same duration to build — and that since then, planning has been done for additional transmission that never got built.
“My question is, how do we balance the cost of this with the pressure that the Sacramento policies are putting on us to diversify our economy?” she asked. “We’ve moving to create a carbon management industry. Is anybody moving on transmission?”
The San Francisco-based investor-owned utility serving most of Kern, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. Inc., said by email it recognizes the need for further expansion of California’s transmission network to support the state’s decarbonization goals and increase the reliability of the state power grid.
PG&E said permitting reform appears necessary to get more transmission built in time and that the company supports CAISO working with other state energy agencies to make sure the state reaches its climate goals “in the most cost-effective manner.”