WASHINGTON — Across the Great Plains the wind blows incessantly, while in the remote Nevada desert the sun bears down without relief. Each holds the potential of a vast new energy resource.
While wind turbine and solar projects are ready to capture this new, eco-friendly energy source, where are the transmission lines to get the power to where it is needed?
Democratic congressional leaders, a former president and his one-time vice president, several Obama Cabinet members, energy executives and business leaders thrashed out that very predicament at a high-profile clean energy conference on Monday.
After two hours, a consensus seemed to emerge: The outdated electricity grid must be modernized and expanded if President Barack Obama's vision of dramatically increasing the country's renewable energy resources is to be accomplished. And the federal government will have to play a bigger role in locating high-voltage power lines to overcome local and regional resistance.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., a leading participant in the gathering, said he will soon introduce legislation to give federal regulators authority to override states when it comes to locating long-distance power lines.
"We cannot let 231 state regulators hold up progress," Reid said, referring to the members of state public utility commissions that decide on transmission locations.
While states should be given every opportunity to participate, "there may come a time when the federal government will have to step in," said Reid, whose state is a prime target for entrepreneurs building solar energy projects.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., also called for expansion and modernization of the nation's power transmission system, saying these improvements are "essential to all that we do" to promote renewable energy.
Gore, Clinton attended
The clean energy conference — which included former Vice President Al Gore, who shared a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on global warming, and former President Bill Clinton — focused at length on the need for a national "smart" grid to transport electricity, and the need for grid expansion.
Gore said modernizing the transmission grid will allow for new ways to generate and distribute electricity.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he's ready to open federal land to renewable energy projects, including wind farms in the waters off the U.S. coast, and map out energy corridors. But, he warned, the power grid of today won't get the new energy to the markets that need it.
"In the end, unless we are able to solve this juggernaut and deal with the transmission issue we're simply going to be standing in place," Salazar told the conference, which was organized by the Center for American Progress.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that will craft energy legislation, said that while he has not seen Reid's proposal, he agreed the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission should have more authority for planning and locating high-voltage power lines.
Bingaman said he hopes to have a bill in four to six weeks that will address the grid issue and establish a requirement for utilities nationwide to generate a certain percentage of electricity — as much as 20 percent by 2020 — from renewable sources such as wind, solar and biomass.
Resistance from states
States have fought to maintain jurisdiction over locating the power grid.
Fred Butler, a New Jersey regulator who is chairman of National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, said state officials are willing to work with the federal government on placement issues but oppose a federal takeover of the authority.
Former New York Gov. George Pataki, one of the few Republicans at the conference, said the federal government must get more involved in establishing power transmission lines.
"If you try to run a wire through someone's community, that becomes about as contentious as you get," said Pataki. If that power is going through a state, he said, "you don't have to take a poll — no one is going to be for it."
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