The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission released a ruling today that will enable grid upgrades to help bring more renewable energy to market.

The new rules build upon changes approved in December for the Midwest, allowing costs for transmission upgrades supporting “multi value projects,” i.e., those that enable states to meet renewable energy mandates, to be passed on to consumers. The changes today essentially apply that standard nationwide.

In a column posted yesterday on Grist, Bill White of the Energy Future Coalition explains further:

While FERC’s rule will be hundreds of pages long, it is likely to focus on just two topics: how regions plan and pay for transmission. For decades, planning and cost allocation have been the graveyards where hopes of building modern regional grids capable of delivering inexpensive clean power to customers have gone to die.

Cost allocation — the formulas that decide how ratepayers share the costs of these large investments in our infrastructure — has traditionally been simple and straightforward: Everyone pays according to how much they benefit. FERC’s new rule will not change that; it will simply help regions account for all the benefits that transmission provides — including, for the first time, the benefits of meeting state clean energy standards. The agency has signaled that its guiding principle will be to ensure that those who do not benefit from transmission do not pay for it.

Not everyone supports the change. In an op-ed published in The Hill last week, Bruce Edelston, a consultant for utilities, says the new rules will unfairly burden consumers:

Michigan consumers may be the first to experience FERC- approved sticker shock — a $500 million a year surtax on their utility bills. In December, FERC issued an order that socializes the cost of certain new transmission lines across 13 Midwestern states. Michigan could be forced to pay 20 percent of at least $16 billion for new wind farms in other states that will provide virtually no benefits to Michigan consumers.

The market should determine what generation and transmission should be built. Instead, under its proposed rules, FERC would pick winners and losers, favoring remote renewable projects that require a transmission build out costing hundreds of billions of dollars over cheaper and possibly greener energy projects built closer to home.

White dismisses those claims, pointing out that transmission costs represent a small portion of customers’ bills, and suggests utilities are just looking out for their own bottom line:

It’s easy to see why these utilities are opposed to transmission reforms and are supporting a transmission bottleneck of their own: to keep collecting billions in unnecessary costs every year from customers trapped in congested and uncompetitive regions. Many Americans currently do not have access to competitive energy supplies. Many regions, including much of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, suffer from high congestion costs. And incumbent utilities benefit from the inflated electric bills of ratepayers in these markets. Transmission has the power to open up uncompetitive energy markets to competition from cheaper forms of energy like wind.

In a news release, FERC Chariman Jon Wellinghoff called the decision “an important step forward.”

“Our action today promotes efficient and cost-effective transmission planning and the fair allocation of costs for new transmission facilities. These changes will provide consumers with greater access to efficient, low-cost electricity.”

Photo by Seattle Municipal Archives via Creative Commons

Ken is the director of the Energy News Network at Fresh Energy and is a founding editor of both Midwest Energy News and Southeast Energy News. Prior to joining Fresh Energy, he was the managing editor for online news at Minnesota Public Radio. He started his journalism career in 2002 as a copy editor for the Duluth News Tribune before spending five years at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where he worked as a copy editor, online producer, features editor and night city editor. A Nebraska native, Ken has a bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master's degree from the University of Oregon. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors.

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