State regulators have a crucial role to play in transmission infrastructure buildout and should not be superseded by federal officials, according to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission member Mark Christie.
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"The role state regulators play is absolutely critical if you want to get transmission built," Christie said during the WIRES' virtual summer meeting July 29. "Transmission policy needs to be realistic, and the state regulators are going to be a vital player in this process, and they should be because they're going to have the credibility to get these projects built."
Christie, who also served on the Virginia State Corporation Commission for about 17 years, said federal agencies are often responsible for delaying projects given extensive environmental reviews they are required to perform by law. State regulators complete their reviews before the federal government in many instances, he said.
He also balked at the notion of federal officials cutting state regulators out of the process or forcing states to adopt projects they had previously denied.
In June, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee considered the Energy Infrastructure Act, a draft bill that could be included as part of the bipartisan infrastructure package, the text of which has not yet been made public. That proposal contained language clarifying that FERC has backstop authority for interstate transmission lines in national interest electric transmission corridors. If passed, FERC would have the ability to override state permit denials related to such transmission projects under certain conditions.
State regulators will always know more about local conditions and needs than officials in Washington, the commissioner said.
"If you really want to see transmission get built faster, then I would suggest to you that you need to talk to some of the members of Congress about the amount and the duration of the various reviews that have to take place under federal law," Christie said. "I don't think it's realistic to think that some national transmission czar is going to override a decision made by state officials."
Importance of states
While utilities and grid operators may promote an infrastructure project they deem necessary, state regulators are responsible for doing their due diligence to ensure there is a need for such facilities, the Republican FERC member said. These regulators sift through hundreds of pages of evidence and listen to hours of public testimony before coming to a decision, he added.
Massive multistate transmission projects are ultimately not realistic, the commissioner said, responding to concerns over such facilities being blocked by "flyover states" where a proposed transmission line may cross but not benefit. States that do not generate or consume the electricity carried by a transmission line may not approve of a project in many instances, he said.
As a result, grid operators need to analyze whether their reliability and congestion needs can be satisfied with a less expensive alternative, Christie said.
"If infrastructure is needed, it's going to get built," the commissioner said. "If you really want to see these big projects built, you're going to need the state regulators to be reviewing these projects and coming to a well-reasoned -- with a good record -- conclusion that the project is needed."