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FEATURE-Wind energy lobbyist maps U.S. power superhighway

WASHINGTON, Aug 1 (Reuters) - Cutting photocopier costs was once Randall Swisher’s top concern, now it’s redrawing the United States’ power grid into a $60 billion superhighway.

When Swisher became executive director of the industry group the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) in 1989, he had four employees and fuel was cheap. So the energy business largely ignored him. Ten years ago, cutting office costs topped the agenda.

Now, with all-time high fossil fuel prices and rising worries about global warming, AWEA boasts 68 employees. Space constraints are forcing Swisher to move AWEA’s office this August for the second time in three years. And AWEA has ensconced itself in the energy establishment, plotting a future with some of the biggest players that keep the lights on in the world’s biggest energy consumer.

Swisher commissioned American Electric Power AEP.N, the country's largest electricity transmitter and one of its largest power generators, to map how a new national network of power lines could potentially distribute wind power from the blustery "wind corridor" from Texas to North Dakota to the heavily-populated coasts.

The “AEP Transmission Vision,” map looks as if the United States has a case of green varicose veins that mass in the central corridor and stretch to the coasts. The veins represent AEP’s proposal of 19,000 miles (30,570 km) of 765-kilovolt power lines, which are far bigger than most lines used today.

“It would be a tremendous step forward to provide a more reliable, robust system to serve the entire electric industry, not just wind,” said Swisher, who added that the bigger lines would face fewer complaints from environmentalists than a maze of smaller lines, because they’d need less ground space.

Melissa McHenry, an AEP spokeswoman, said the lines would be a “very highly efficient kind of superhighway” that would help fix the aged U.S. grid and prevent massive blackouts, like the 2003 outage that hit over 40 million people in eight states in the Northeast.

It could also provide a backbone for renewable power, such as wind from the heartland and solar from the Southwest, which need a solid network because their power generation fluctuates steeply when the wind stops or the clouds block the sun.

The map is making the rounds. Texas oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens distributed it on Capitol Hill last week. He was testifying to a Senate committee about his plan to replace natural gas burned to generate electricity with wind power tapped from the heartland. According to his plan, some of the freed up natural gas would be used to fuel cars and trucks.

Like Pickens, Swisher said in order for country to tap its wind power potential, the U.S. government may have to use powers of eminent domain, or the seizing of private property with due compensation, to secure the paths for the lines.

“I’m not aware of any utility that’s building a transmission line that doesn’t on occasion need to make use of such a tool,” Swisher said.

OPPOSITION

Indeed, the federal government has given itself new powers that could help transform the grid over the next few decades. Late last year, the Department of Energy identified two “national interest” electric transmission corridors to address areas of line congestion that hurt consumers, one from New York to Washington, D.C., and the other from Los Angeles to San Diego.

The corridors are a “first step in providing the federal government...siting authority that supplements existing state authority,” according to the DOE.

Even so, the building of a national grid is unlikely any time soon, said Will Pearson, a global energy analyst for the Eurasia Group.

“It is a great resource that’s largely untapped,” he said about the central U.S. wind power potential, “but it seems there’s widespread and very diverse opposition to federally driven programs.” Opponents include states that would not benefit from the transmission of power through their boundaries and utilities on the coasts that may not want cheap power from the heartland to come into their markets.

In addition, Pearson said, the country has not agreed that a massive movement to wind and solar power is the answer to the energy crunch, citing Republican U.S. presidential candidate John McCain’s proposal to encourage the building of 45 new nuclear reactors by 2030.

But his Democratic rival, Barack Obama has proposed investing $150 billion over the next decade in alternative energy, a step that would lend strength to a national transmission plan, Pearson said.

Swisher admitted it’s slow going convincing all the states to agree to a national grid. So he’s highlighting to governors the manufacturing, operations and maintenance jobs that wind power can provide. His job just got a bit easier as the United States recently surpassed Germany as the world’s largest wind power generator.

And this month Texas regulators approved a plan to lure $5 billion in new investment to build lines to move wind power from the state’s hinterlands to its cities.

“Given the trajectory we’re on, I don’t see this growth ending any time soon,” Swisher said. (Reporting by Timothy Gardner, editing by Marguerita Choy)

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