Energy bill in need of major overhaul

We oppose most of what’s in the energy bills awaiting Congress’ return from recess because they favor mandates over markets, pie in the sky over practicality and are largely disconnected from reality. It turns out they’re disconnected in a literal sense, too.

In a case of putting the renewable energy bandwagon before the horse, Congress might soon impose stringent renewable energy production quotas on every utility in the country without doing anything to clear the way for a major expansion of the electric grid.

These one-size-fits-all mandates — which require every utility to generate 15 percent of power from wind, solar and other “renewables” by 2020 — are misguided on a number of levels. But without a concomitant expansion of the transmission system, and without the construction of conventional power plants to back up these intermittent energy sources, this amounts to a fool’s errand.

“You can build all the solar arrays or wind turbines in the world, but if you don’t have the transmission lines it does you no good,” Dan Riedinger, a spokesman for Edison Electric Institute, pointed out in a recent news story. Added Rob Gramlich of the American Wind Energy Association: “There is wide recognition in the wind industry that (lack of transmission) is our biggest long-term barrier.”

It takes about one year to construct a wind farm, but five to seven years, on average, to permit and build the transmission networks needed to carry wind or solar power to the grid, according to Greenwire, an environmental news Web site.

And some transmission projects can take much longer, in part due to red tape, in part due to NIMBYism. The American Electric power line linking Virginia and West Virginia, for instance, took 16 years to permit and build.

Unless Congress does something to streamline the regulatory burdens on line builders, and to incentivize investment in new capacity (which is possible without subsidies), a federal crash program to boost wind and solar energy is even more likely to be a disaster.

Everyone in America demands reliable electricity, but no one wants the transmission lines running through their proverbial or literal backyards. NIMBYism has thus become a major hurdle to expansion of the grid. Overcoming this selfish and irrational mindset might present the most vexing challenge of all.

Washington is bursting with schemes for promoting renewables. But only two bills before Congress aim at modernizing our antiquated and overloaded grid. Neither of the bills has been included in the pending energy packages.

They say members of Congress are disconnected from the real world. This lack of foresight and common sense proves it.