Conflict is brewing between federal and state regulators over a proposal by the U.S. Department of Energy to designate Arizona and Southern California as a national corridor for more high-power transmission lines.
Members of the Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates the siting of transmission lines and power plants in Arizona, said the proposal could turn Arizona into an “energy farm” for California. They said federal regulators could override state decisions and permit the construction of power transmission lines within the corridor that would primarily transport electricity from generating plants in Arizona to California. That would result in Arizona paying the price in higher rates and environmental disruptions so that California consumers could get cheaper power, they say.
“We don’t want any process leading to Arizona becoming an energy farm for other states,” Commissioner Kris Mayes said. She added “this is the states’ rights issue of our day.”
The Department of Energy has scheduled a public hearing at 1 p.m. Thursday at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, 4300 E. Washington St., Phoenix, to hear comments on the proposed corridor. Mayes said all five members of the Arizona commission plan to present their objections.
The corridor plan is a result of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which gives DOE the power to designate National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors in areas where electric transmission capacity is “constrained.”
In April, the DOE tentatively designated two such corridors — one in the East, including portions of Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland and Virginia and all of New Jersey, Delaware and the District of Columbia, and the other in the Southwest covering portions of California, Arizona and Nevada.
Within a national corridor, transmission projects rejected by state authorities could be reviewed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which could reverse the state decision and permit construction.
The issue is more than just theoretical for Arizona.
On May 30, the corporation commission rejected a plan by Southern California Edison to build a high-power transmission line from a switchyard near the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station west of Phoenix to a switchyard near Palm Springs, Calif.
The project was intended to bring electricity produced at natural gasfueled power plants near Palo Verde to Southern California Edison customers in Southern California.
The commissioners cited various objections including the route passing through the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in western Arizona and studies that show Arizona will need most of the power produced at the natural gas plants within a few years.
Southern California Edison officials have not said if they would appeal the decision to the federal regulators if a corridor is designated.
“We are looking at our options,” Southern California Edison spokesman Paul Klein said.
Arizona Commissioner Jeff Hatch-Miller said the corridor wouldn’t be necessary if California built more instate plants to meet its own needs. Instead, he said California utilities appear to be looking to neighboring states to generate the electricity and transport it over long power lines, letting those states bear the environmental costs.
He compared the situation to Los Angeles reaching out early in the 20th century to seize water from the Owens Valley to meet its growing demands without regard to the impact on the Owens Valley.
“We don’t mind cooperative projects, but this is a one-way corridor,” Hatch-Miller said. “It’s a way to reach out and grab power.”
Commissioner Bill Mundell said he also is worried about the possibility of federal regulators pre-empting state decisions.
“I would like to see that provision (of the Energy Act) repealed,” he said.
Legislation has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that would prevent DOE from spending money to implement the corridors.
Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman has defended the program, saying “the nation is facing serious near-term problems in adequately delivering electricity to consumers. ... If these challenges are ignored or dismissed, the existing problems will persist and worsen with time and could result in blackouts.”
Some electricity produced in Arizona already is transported to California, notably from the Palo Verde plant, which is partially owned by Southern California Edison, the Southern California Public Power Authority and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Arizona receives a small amount of geothermal electricity from California.
DOE has been holding a series of public hearings on the corridor proposals. Following the close of the public comment period on July 6, the DOE staff will evaluate the reactions and make a recommendation to the energy secretary, who will make the final determination.
There is no target date for reaching a decision, DOE spokeswoman Julie Ruggiero said.