Get Big Pivots

Transmission has long been lacking. Can the new Colorodo Electric Transmission Authority prod a solution — or create a new link itself?


by Allen Best

In the wired world of the 21st century, Colorado’s San Luis Valley has an Achilles’s heel. It has just two transmission lines ferrying electricity into the valley, both across Poncha Pass, at the valley’s pinched northern end

On a day of heavy, wet snow in early May, those transmission lines — a 115-kilovolt line operated by Xcel Energy and a 230-kilovolt line operated jointly by Tri-State Generation and Transmission and the Western Area Power Authority – went down.

It was morning, so Alamosa and other towns in the valley didn’t go dark. But life slowed to a crawl.

Can the Colorado Electric Transmission Authority do anything?

CETA, a quasi-government entity, was created by the Colorado Legislature in 2022. In April  2023 it hired an executive director, Maury Galbraith, who had been in Colorado for a number of years as director of a Western transmission grid.

It’s getting feet under it, if too slowly for the druthers of some who believe the climate crisis demands quick action. Galbraith calls CETA the transmission developer of first and last resorts. By this, he explains, CETA can identify where transmission is needed and it can, if nobody else wants to build it, do so itself. Legislators gave it broad powers, including that of eminent domain.

In an interview in mid-May, days after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, announced proposed new rules regarding transmission, Galbraith talked with Big Pivots about the stage of development of CETA. It’s still early, he suggested, although the stage is being set for action, conceivably as early as summer 2025.

A consultant has been working on a study assessing Colorado’s transmission needs. The first draft of that report, which was mandated by legislators, will be delivered to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission by August, and the report will be delivered to state legislators in January 2025.

Before using its authority, CETA must then provide public notification of its plans and let some somebody else, be it a utility or a private developer, have first shot. That will require bringing a team of lawyers into the process to ensure all the boxes are checked.

All of these steps has Galbraith thinking that the first public notice won’t go out for a year. What will that project be?

CETA can’t pursue all the projects, but the study can be expected to nominate 5 or 10. The directors of CETA will have to develop criteria for evaluating where to invest CETA’s time and money. Galbraith said directors can be expected to choose projects that will not be long, complex and complicated. Controversy will be avoided in the first project.

“We are looking for short projects that have short distances using existing transmission rights of way, something that provides benefit to Colorado’s electricity system,” he says.

One possible candidate for being the first project for CETA to exercise its unique authority within Colorado is to create a link to one of the transmission lines being built to ferry wind-powered electricity from Wyoming to Utah and the Southwest. Both PacifiCorp’s 500-kw alternating current Gateway South transmission line will cross northwest Colorado in Moffat County west of Craig.

Something to meet the needs of the San Luis Valley would also be considered. It’s not a new problem, and it has several dimensions, both supply and demand. The San Luis Valley with a mean elevation of 7,800 feet and hence somewhat cooler temperatures and plenty of sunshine has the two key attributes for strong electrical production from photovoltaic panels. Solar production has been stopped until more transmission capacity is added.

But there’s also the problem of depending upon electricity for whatever happens at Poncha Pass.

Now years ago, Xcel and Tri-State tried to build a new line across a different pass, La Veta, into the valley. Louis Bacon, the billionaire who owns a ranch at the pass, blocked it.

Lately, in an effort led by Lori Laskey, the Alamosa County commissioners have applied for federal funding to develop a proposal for transmission to and from the valley’s south end, in New Mexico.

Speaking just days after the San Luis Valley outage, Galbraith emphasized the reliability benefits of new transmission. “It’s not just an issue of a stranded solar asset. There are real reliability benefits to having a second transmission line.”

Before CETA can start hiring people to plan and build new transmission, it has to put it out for public notice, to notify existing utilities.

“We can shine a spotlight on these unmet transmission needs such as in the San Valley, and through that public notification process, spur other developers and other project developers to take on the project.”

Allen Best
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