OREGON PRIDES itself on being green. So guess which senator is trying to smother a new federal effort to pour more—and cheaper—renewable power into the nation's electric grid: It's our senior Democratic senator, Ron Wyden.
Wyden is pushing a bill, the Mercury has learned, meant to block a regulatory order that makes it easier to string new high-voltage transmission lines out to far-off places like wind farms and solar arrays. It's touted as a consumer protection act that would keep customers from over-paying for these new lines. But environmentalists say the Wyden-backed bill—by exploiting technical minutia—would actually protect inefficient, fossil-fuel-powered utilities from competing with cheaper, cleaner sources of power.
To push the bill, Wyden has teamed up with Republicans—just like he's done on Medicare and health care reform. Why, exactly, is a mystery. Wyden isn't talking; his staffers declined our repeated requests for comment. But one thing is certain: Environmentalists and clean-energy advocates hate his bill.
"It's a whopper, or misleading at best," Bill White, a senior advisor at Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, says about Wyden's attempt to brand the bill as a consumer protection act.
Behind the bill, known as S400, stands a group of seven privately owned, mostly East Coast-based electrical utilities. Organized under an umbrella group called the Coalition for Fair Transmission Policy (CFTP), these utilities have lobbied hard for S400 in the US Senate. CFTP members have also donated to five of the bill's seven co-sponsors—although Wyden has not received their money.
Called the "Electric Transmission Customer Protection Act," S400 was introduced by Tennessee Republican Bob Corker in February 2011. Environmentalists say it was a preemptive strike against the power-lines order by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Wyden was the bill's first cosponsor; others joined later.
The CFTP itself was formed the previous year to counter an ambitious energy plan proposed by New Mexico Democrat Jeff Bingaman. The group found a kindred spirit in Corker after he slapped an amendment onto Bingaman's bill. The amendment was a precursor to S400, and sources say Wyden voted for it. But Bingaman's bill didn't become law. So CFTP got behind S400. What the bill's proponents hope to accomplish, environmentalists say, is to raise enough technical questions about how to pay for the new lines so that they're never built.
It helps to think of the nation's electrical grid as a bucket whose bottom is full of holes. It's really easy to see the source of water that's poured into the bucket; but once in the bucket, it's hard to tell where water from each source comes out. And this, says White, is the problem that the utilities behind CFTP hope to exploit. Wyden's bill wants to saddle the feds with the impossible task of knowing exactly which electrons are going where.
CFTP President Sue Sheridan told the Mercury that her organization's overarching concern is making sure consumers and utilities don't have to pay for "socializing" the cost of new lines that won't directly benefit them. "If you end up subsidizing the cost of transmission broadly," says Sheridan, "you end up masking the real cost, and that's not something that should be done when you have customers receiving no benefit on the other end."
But environmentalists say Sheridan's concerns are overblown.
"It's not that people will pay too much for lines they don't benefit from," says White. "It's really the opposite problem that people are trying not to pay for things that they will benefit from." The real issue, they say, is keeping out competition from renewables. And there is evidence to support this claim.
In the Midwest, adding transmission lines for wind power has actually brought down the cost of electricity. The reason, according to an independent study requested by White's group: Beyond the cost of constructing power lines and windmills, wind itself is cheap. In fact, wind is free. Putting all that cheap electricity on the market draws down the cost of all the rest of the power being sold at the same time, and that means fossil-fuel plants could lose money.
As for Wyden's bill, since its introduction in February 2011, not much has happened. The bill has no counterpart in the US House, although that could change next year. And it's still stuck in a committee. That could change, too, thanks to election year politics.
Questions about the power-lines order have also come from local utilities.
Portland General Electric and PacificCorp, through a regional planning group, both expressed concerns about how the lines should be funded—but Portland General Electric spokesman Steve Corson says the group has decided to go along with the order. This may not be the case for the Bonneville Power Administration, which is putting up a fight even though utilities nationwide are supposed to be actively complying with the order.
Bonneville Power is concerned that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's order could interfere with the agency's legal mandate to keep electricity rates low. But Bonneville Power will no doubt have to tread lightly on the issue given that environmentalists are still livid with the agency for how it kept excess wind power off the grid last year.
"They did not answer our question on cost allocation," Chuck Combs, a lawyer for Bonneville Power, says of the feds. "We are still in the process of deciding what to do."