Congress may expand federal authority over energy infrastructure

Congress will soon try to address the regulatory issues that may set back the stimulus bill's attempt to jump-start the use of smart grid technology nationwide.

WASHINGTON--Now that the federal government has authorized spending billions of dollars for transmission line construction and renewable-energy efforts, it may expand its authority over how interstate transmission lines are built.

President Obama on Tuesday signed the so-called stimulus bill into law, providing what Obama's climate czar Carol Browner called on Tuesday "an amazing down payment" on smart grid technology, renewable-energy production, and other efforts to create energy efficiency.

Questions remain, however, as to whether the Energy Department and other government agencies will be able to overcome a complex regulatory maze to spend the funds quickly and appropriately, particularly for transmission lines.

"Our energy sector is very complicated," Karen Harbert, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy, said at the Chamber on Tuesday. "It's become too easy for any project of any hue to get wrapped up in 'green' tape."

That "green tape" could mean granting permits, allocating costs appropriately for interstate transmission lines, or siting--the process of determining where exactly the lines will go.

Congress intends to address these problems in upcoming legislation, said Chris Miller, a senior energy adviser for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), at a smart-grid discussion at Google's Washington office on Tuesday. The legislation would expand the federal government's authority over a process that is typically led by the states.

"You will see legislation, and you will see it fairly soon," Miller said.

Reid has been working for a couple of years, he said, on ways to get renewable energies to the marketplace and will reintroduce an expanded version of a bill he introduced last session. The legislation is likely to be introduced this March or April.

If the government truly wants to meet Obama's goals for energy efficiency--such as doubling the amount of renewable energy in the next three years--the Department of Energy will have to reorganize immediately, said Andy Karsner, the Energy Department's former associate secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy. The department's failure to distribute the loan guarantees promised in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 demonstrate the department's failures, he and other panelists at the Google event said.

The department is mired in the "organic growth of legacy policy," Karsner said, and needs to exert more authority over interstate transmission issues.

Just as decades ago Congress withheld highway construction funds from states that did not adopt 21 as the legal drinking age, the government should be able to enforce conditions on states to set up a functional, efficient electric transmission system, Karsner said.

"It's a necessity, and only the federal government can provide for that necessity," he said.

John Podesta, an Obama adviser and president of the Center for American Progress, said the administration was enthusiastic about the promise of renewable energy as it developed the stimulus package but was weighed down by "a sense of frustration that policy still needed to be developed."

 

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