The U.S. Supreme Court may eventually hear arguments involving a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last month that FERC cannot overrule a state's decision to reject a transmission project. The case involved two power companies that planned to build a high-voltage power line through multiple states, including Maryland and Virginia, providing power for New York City. A similar case, which involves multi-state corridors for transmission line siting, is pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

 

More than the obvious states rights versus federal power argument, the case highlights myriad legal problems that threaten Smart Grid.

 

On the one hand, the decision upholds a state's right to balance its own energy sources with its own natural resources. After all, who wants transmission towers in the middle of a public forest?

 

On the other hand, the state-federal power struggle threatens FERC's approach to fast-tracking transmission line siting, a process allowed under the proposed Clean Renewable Energy and Economic Development Act of 2009.

 

At stake is the Smart Grid initiative to connect much of the nation's wind, solar, and geothermal resources — renewables that are predominantly located in the interior of the country — with the areas that need that energy the most — the coasts. Proponents of grid renovations at the regional level say a one-size-fits-all approach to ramping up renewable energy production doesn't make sense, according to sources quoted in a recent article in The Washington Times.

 

Because of the money and states’ rights involved to send electricity across hundreds of miles, it would seem just plain logical — and more economical — to use energy that's produced nearby, like offshore wind. Yet looking to ocean-based wind power brings its own problems to the energy-hungry coasts. MMS claims jurisdiction over wind projects in federal waters, which has resulted in a legal dispute with FERC.

 

And in areas like West Texas, which generates more wind power than it can transmit to the rest of the state, more transmission lines are desperately needed. Yet transmission-congestion costs are adding to the price of what begins as a low-cost alternative. Is it legal?

 

The intermittent and rural nature of renewable power requires smart technologies to regulate them. Yet state-federal, federal-federal, and state-state power struggles are slowing the grid’s overhaul.

 

So while renewable energy is blowing unharnessed in the wind, solutions are increasingly tied up in the courts.

 


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