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Power struggle at Utah Legislature over transmission line

Published: Friday, Aug. 28 2015 1:34 p.m. MDT

A last-minute battle is brewing on Utah's Capitol Hill over a planned 725-mile transmission line that crosses Utah. Legislation is proposing that the state can force the line to make connections with a proposed nuclear power plant near Green River. (Rick Bowmer, AP) A last-minute battle is brewing on Utah's Capitol Hill over a planned 725-mile transmission line that crosses Utah. Legislation is proposing that the state can force the line to make connections with a proposed nuclear power plant near Green River. (Rick Bowmer, AP)

SALT LAKE CITY — A fervent, last-minute pushing match has broken out on Capitol Hill over a huge electrical transmission line destined to cross Utah, if there is a "future need" for it in the state and who ought to be able to plug into it.

The future of the $3 billion TransWest Express project, most notably how it is envisioned to be constructed in the state with a possible "interconnection," rests on the action lawmakers take — or don't take — in the final hours of the 2014 Legislature.

"It really boils down to a question of policy," said Mike Swenson, a lobbyist representing the solar industry, "and if Utah should have a say about a transmission line that crosses this state."

HB44, sponsored by Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton and carried in the Senate by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, has already gone through several iterations regarding in-state access to what would be the nation's second largest direct current transmission line.

The 725-mile, 600-kilovolt line as planned would originate in Wyoming, cross Utah and end in Nevada near Las Vegas. It would deliver wind-generated power from Wyoming for customers in the southwest United States, which is anticipated to have drastic gains in population and more demand for power.

The momentum behind the Utah legislation is to ensure that would-be power generators such as Aaron Tilton's planned power plant near Green River or solar projects proposed for Millard, Iron and Beaver counties can "tie in" to the line via an interconnect.

Both sides have been marshaling their forces for the showdown that is playing out, with a planned pitch before a closed-caucus meeting abruptly averted Wednesday when Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, collapsed in a hallway.

The dueling sides returned Thursday for some last-minute, private wrangling in front of key lawmakers. The bill awaits action in the Utah Senate.

Tilton said the project, as proposed to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, was initially to have an interconnect at Delta at the Intermountain Power Plant, but it no longer includes that component.

"The issue here at hand is that the transmission developers will not commit to give access to the state," he said. "The state has a right to determine a need for the line, through determining access, and that is what this bill really does."

But Roxane Perruso, vice president and general counsel for TransWest Express, said the bill is not nearly as "benign" as Tilton describes it.

"Both (versions) force us into bad agreements regarding either the reservation of space on the line or the location of our Utah terminal," she said. "In addition to the interference in private business negotiations, the bill is unconstitutional. It picks in-state winners over out-of-state losers and is pre-empted by federal law."

The company's application with the Bureau of Land Management describes a "potential" interconnection with IPP at Delta, with an eye to providing "future flexibility" for transmitting available renewable energy resources through that facility. It's unclear if the regulating agency in this instance, FERC, can force an interconnection.

Perruso said TransWest has been in negotiations with Tilton about access to the line, but those negotiations hinged on a guarantee of access without any accompanying check to hold the power plant's spot in the queue.

She added the state is broaching constitutionally dangerous territory by poking its nose into the business of a private company and future contracts by trying to define the conditions of those business arrangements.

"You're talking about a project that has gone six years through the permitting process and spent millions of dollars in engineering and design," she said.

Perruso said there is nothing to preclude a "connection" arrangement with an in-state power generator such as a future solar field or nuclear power plant, but it is outside of state purview to require those upfront.

But TransWest critics say there is nothing "private" about a transmission line that has the investment of public dollars and is regulated by a federal entity.

"The notion that this is a private deal is just false," said Swenson, who represents SunEdison, the nation's largest utility-scale solar developer. "Utilities are not free. If they cross our state without having any connect, Utah does not have (entrance) into the regulatory process."

The project, although licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, is wending its way through an environmental review by the Bureau of Land Management for its corridor.

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