How Long Does It Take to Permit and Build Transmission to Meet California’s Policy Goals?

Without proactive decision-making, important options for reaching California’s goals at the lowest cost may simply be lost due to inadequate lead time. It is for these reasons that meeting the SB 350 RPS and SB 32 GHG targets requires a focus on electric transmission – making the best use of existing transmission and identifying where new transmission is necessary.

– RETI 2.0 Plenary Report

If California is going to meet its energy policy goals, planners need to adequately account for cost-effective, environmentally responsible upgraded and new transmission projects that can flexibly and reliably deliver renewable resources to the state. Transmission upgrade projects require less time in existing or pre-approved corridors, but are only part of the plan-experience and the demands of the financing and permitting processes tell us that new transmission project development conservatively calls for 15-year planning horizons instead of the current 10-year timeframe being used.

The California Natural Resources Agency, Public Utilities Commission, Energy Commission, and ISO jointly stated in December 2016 that “…a major new focus for the electric sector – including generators, load-serving utilities, regulators, and consumers – is accessing and integrating large quantities of carbon-free electricity to meet California’s ambitious renewable energy and greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction goals. The bulk electric transmission system is also expected to play a critical role in accessing and integrating higher levels of cost-effective renewable resources.”

One of the most cost-effective and largescale strategies for meeting California’s carbon-reduction policy objectives involves connecting geographically diverse renewable resources and energy demand centers through a more robust regional transmission network. Within that, because transmission often involves high capital costs, environmental and economic implications, and long planning time frames, a long-term strategic approach is warranted.

Implementing such an approach could reasonably begin with the question: “How long does it take to plan, permit, and construct bulk transmission?” Four completed projects currently delivering renewable resources and GHG benefits provide some benchmarks:

  • Southern California Edison’s Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project permitting and construction was initiated in 2004 and completed in December 2016; 12 years
  • San Diego Gas & Electric’s Sunrise Powerlink Project permitting began in 2005 and was energized in 2012; 7 years
  • The TransWest Express Transmission Project has been under development since 2005, with construction anticipated for completion in 2020; 15 years, and
  • Studies for TANC’s California-Oregon Transmission Project (COTP) began in 1983 with the formation of the Northwest Transmission Joint Venture. It was energized in 1993; 10 years.

It can be conservatively assumed that two or more years can be added to each of these projects” timeframes for preliminary internal planning, feasibility, and alternatives development investigations prior to their initial public notifications.

Based on those four projects’ full development timeframes, the planning and construction of a new bulk transmission project takes an estimated average of 13 years, and probably longer in the future under the progressively more rigorous and time-consuming permitting, approval, and land acquisition processes being demanded today. For California to successfully meet its carbon reduction and RPS goals, we need to take a new and more holistic look at resource and transmission planning. The current standard “10-year” planning horizon that are being used in state and regional transmission planning processes are inadequate, and a need for a refresh is required.