SALT LAKE CITY — It would have been lights out in just a couple of years for Washington County residents, with demand for electrical power surpassing what the system could provide.
That prospect has dimmed, however, with Friday’s decision by a pair of federal agencies granting the green light for Rocky Mountain Power to go ahead with a 170-mile transmission line providing enough juice for 584,000 homes.
The 170-mile Sigurd to Red Butte line cleared a bevvy of regulatory hurdles and made concessions to multiple potential roadblocks along the way, including competing conflicts in Beaver and Millard counties for planned energy projects there and potential ramifications for historic landmarks like the Mountain Meadows Massacre site.
Its stamp of approval is a relief to Washington County Commission Chairman Alan Gardner, who said the future looked dark if the line didn’t go through.
“We have to have it or we would have been having some brownouts or blackouts, particularly in the summertime,” he said.
The line, which will provide an installed capacity of 600 megawatts, starts just north of Richfield and ends in Washington County. It is part of the power company’s expansive Gateway transmission project intended to shore up a steady supply of electrical power for the fastest growing region in the country.
“Transmission is an area the entire country needs to address,” said Rocky Mountain Power spokeswoman Margaret Oler. "It has been a long time since major projects have been added to the system. It is time to do that, build more capacity into the system.”
The project’s approval comes the same day a new analysis of future transmission projects across the country was released by Bloomberg Government, which probed the future impacts of a new order issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The new order, called Order 1,000, is intended to accelerate the competitive marketplace for new transmission lines, with the report pointing out that more than 30,000 miles of new lines are planned across the country through 2022 at a cost of nearly $85 billion.
Utah is one of 14 states which falls under the umbrella of the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, which the report says covers a region anticipated to grow to 93 million by 2020. That population growth will drive a 14 percent increase in the demand for electricity, which will fuel 12,000 miles worth of new lines at a cost of $55 billion.
The region’s transmission growth far eclipses the rest of the country, based on its geographic size, but also due to population growth and emphasis on developing renewable power, said Richard Heidorn Jr., author of the report.
To shore up those electrical power needs into the future, 25 companies are anticipated to each spend $100 million aimed at reliability, reducing “congestion” in systems and providing greater redundancy in the region — key for when power fails.
Heidorn noted that the federal regulatory agency moved forward with its reforms because of years of lethargic growth in further developing the power grid.
“FERC is acting now because the transmission infrastructure grew by only 2 percent between 2000 and 2010 and that is just not fast enough to deal with the issues,” he said.
Rocky Mountain’s Sigurd line, signed off by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, ensures the threat of widespread blackouts or brownouts won't become a reality in 2015, like Washington County had feared.
The line should be up and running by June of that year, transmitting 345 kilovolts of power and providing the added boost of 255 new jobs to the economy along the way.
Heidorn notes that another transmission line planned to traverse through Utah typifies projects being built for renewable power.
TransWest Express is planning a 725-mile line that begins in Sinclair, Wyo., crosses Utah and ends at Boulder City, Nev., delivering 3,000 MW of wind-generated power.
That project, undergoing an environmental review slated for release in late spring, will be part of an additional 30,000 MW of wind and solar capacity added to the western system in the next seven years.