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Reid: Improve the Transmission System

The National Academy of Engineering has named the electric transmission system as the greatest achievement of the 20th century. That massive system can be one of the nation’s most significant assets as we try to work together to rebuild our economy and ignite a clean energy revolution that creates millions of new jobs, reduces pollution and increases our security.

But to move to clean, renewable, 21st-century energy on a grand scale, we need to rapidly invest hundreds of billions of dollars to upgrade and improve our transmission system to make it secure, reliable and ready to accelerate development of our nation’s vast renewable energy resources, advanced energy efficiency technologies, and electrification of the transportation sector.

Failure to make these investments in a timely fashion will harm our global competitiveness and our hopes to lead the world in high-tech manufacturing and new energy technology innovation. But perhaps most importantly, the sooner we build a smart and efficient grid, the sooner consumers will have new options at their fingertips that can help them save money on their energy bills.

For all of these reasons, I have been working on legislation with my Senate colleagues, such as Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), and with leaders in the new administration, such as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Jon Wellinghoff, as well as environmental groups, renewable energy and utility industry people, the states and many others.

My approach is to identify renewable energy rich areas of the country such as Nevada that could benefit from enhanced transmission capacity, to require thorough and geographically broad planning that maximizes clean energy resources, to develop a fair cost allocation system for these important transmission projects, and to implement a reasonable process that results in new and improved transmission capacity being sited and built in a timely fashion. If these steps falter, then the federal government needs the authority to move the process along. It is clear that the federal backstop transmission siting authority from the 2005 energy bill is not working and was not adequately designed to really tap our full renewable resource potential.

President Barack Obama has signaled that renewable energy will be a cornerstone of his administration. The economic recovery plan put a down payment on these efforts, with more than $60 billion in clean energy funding. One of the most important components of this investment is $11 billion to build a smarter and greener transmission grid. The Department of Energy has received hundreds of grant applications for this money, and I look forward to the grants being issued and the work beginning soon.

But we all realize that the president’s recovery plan is just the first of many steps. The circumstances that have left our economy reeling, our dependence on fossil fuels and foreign energy deepening, and our transmission system aging has taken many years, and we will not solve these problems overnight.

But we know one thing for sure: Working together — in partnership with federal, state and local governments, the White House, the private sector and the American people willing to all do their part, we can and will find solutions.

America has vast renewable energy resources that are becoming more affordable and practical every day. Visionary entrepreneurs all across our country are dotting our landscape with new wind, solar and geothermal projects. The solar power potential in Nevada and the desert Southwest alone could meet our entire country’s energy needs seven times over. The wind energy in the Great Plains and Midwest and offshore on both coasts is similarly abundant. And the potential for geothermal energy, still largely untapped, is simply staggering.

But thus far, no one is connecting all these dots. Too many of these projects are constrained by regulatory hurdles and limited access to a transmission grid that efficiently brings renewable energy from the places that produce it to the places that will use it.

That is all about to change. I have introduced the Clean Renewable Energy and Economic Development Act (S. 539). The Senate Energy Committee, under the leadership of Bingaman, has passed S. 1462, the American Clean Energy Leadership Act. Both of these bills address the three areas critical to improving our transmission system — planning, cost allocation and siting. The Senate will consider comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation later in this session that fully embraces these concepts. Also, my bill and the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act (S. 1733), introduced by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), have another important provision designed to promote transmission siting, in the form of incentives for landowners, local governments and groups to work together on choosing appropriate locations for renewable energy and transmission lines.

I am pleased to note that DOE and FERC, and regional groups have already started the work to improve transmission planning. I worked to be sure that the stimulus package included $80 million for coordinated transmission planning. I hope that the grants from this money will be the basis for the new planning we need to fully integrate renewable energy and energy efficiency resources when building new transmission. The Western Governors’ Association has made great progress identifying renewable energy zones, and the New England Governors has recently published an ambitious energy blueprint.

But we can no longer afford to wait while a few states, utilities or others block important interstate transmission projects that are critical to building a new and better grid that will maximize renewable power generation and delivery and help consumers save money through greater use of distributed generation and energy efficiency. We have to move forward as quickly as possible.

As this legislation proceeds, all sides will have an opportunity to take part in the debate and strengthen the final product. I look forward to developing solutions to make the federal government a better partner and to create sustainable economic growth opportunities for Nevada and the nation.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is Senate Majority Leader.

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