Blackout threat illustrates transmission line woes

Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper welcomes attendees to the Intermountain Energy Summit on Tuesday morning at the Shilo Inn & Convention Center in Idaho Falls. Later that day, she returned to tell audience members to prepare themselves for a blackout. A delivery truck had struck a utility pole ^ Monte LaOrange Monte LaOrange /

Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper took the podium Tuesday to tell 150 scientists, engineers and policymakers from the U.S. and Canada at the Intermountain Energy Summit to prepare themselves for a blackout.

She wasn’t joking.

A delivery truck had just snapped a utility pole for a high-power line for the city’s electric utility. If the linemen couldn’t fix the pole quickly, the power company would have to cut power to a large part of Idaho Falls, including the Shilo Hotel, site of the two-day conference that wrapped up Wednesday.

The problem came from the city’s inability to build a new, redundant power line to ensure reliable service. Officials could not reach agreement for a right of way for the transmission line and lost their ability to use the city’s power of eminent domain to take over the needed land because it fell outside of city limits.

Idaho Falls’ problem is a challenge that all electric utilities face as they seek to build a new generation of transmission lines across Idaho and the West. It was one of the issues discussed at the summit, which was organized by Casper, the Post Register, Idaho National Laboratory and international engineering conglomerate Fluor.

Casper’s blackout warning came as Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter was finishing his lunch speech, criticizing federal officials for slow approval of the proposed Gateway West transmission line across southern Idaho. The mayor chimed in that it was private landowners who were stopping her line.

“The problem is people take power for granted until there is a blackout,” Lt. Gov. Brad Little said.

Many pinch points

It took six years and seven months for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to approve Gateway West, which is slated to run 1,000 miles from Glenrock, Wyo., to near Melba, said Richard Walje, Rocky Mountain Power CEO. His company and partner Idaho Power Co. had to go through 30 federal agencies, each with a patchwork of jurisdictions and often different interpretations of the utilities’ requirements.

The utilities are working with BLM and a local collaborative group to work out the final line routes around and through the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey area. But even if they get agreement on those routes, they still must get approval for the line’s path through nonfederal land from each of the Idaho counties it would cross.

Power and Cassia counties both have expressed opposition to BLM-approved routes.

In Wyoming, Rocky Mountain needed only to make its case to a state energy facility siting board that the route was the best and that the line was needed.

More federal power?

The answer to the problem is not less federal control, said Boise energy attorney Peter Richardson, but more. If the nation believes such transmission lines are crucial, then the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which already approves oil pipelines, should make transmission line siting decisions.

David Manning, who represents the Canadian province of Alberta in Washington, D.C., illustrated the lack of technological innovation in the electric grid with a joke that Alexander Graham Bell would not know what to think about today’s smartphones.

In contrast, “Edison would not only recognize the grid, but he could fix it,” Manning said.

New high-tech transmission lines are going to be crucial not only to meet power needs, but also for national security, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said Wednesday.

“Our electric grid has a bunch of threats,” Moniz said.

Those include extreme weather, cyberthreats, physical threats such as attacks and vandalism, and electromagnetic pulses. The Idaho National Laboratory is working on many of the issues, Moniz said.

The grid also will have to evolve during the next 20 years to be more flexible in the face of other new technology, said Elliot Mainzer of the Bonneville Power Administration. That includes distributed generation sources such as rooftop solar systems, and new demand-side energy efficiency technology that will be able to turn off appliances and other equipment when they’re not needed or when the power supply is short.

The growth of distributed generation, combined with battery storage systems, could insulate users from the need for the grid. That could add financial uncertainty to investments into transmission lines, which are paid back over many decades, Walje said.

No dark this time

Idaho Falls was able to avoid a blackout Tuesday because its demand was down, said Jackie Flowers, Idaho Falls Power general manager. Most of Idaho’s electric utilities peak in the summer, but Idaho Falls, dominated by residential use rather than agricultural use, peaks in the winter.

Unless the city can work out a solution on new lines, she said, the threat of a blackout remains high.

“That particular location is vulnerable,” Flowers said.

Many speakers said engagement with the people affected by the location of lines will be vital to resolving transmission disputes.

“My vision is more mediation, more collaboration,” said Britt Ide, a Boise energy attorney.