Slower in the west? – Clean Air Task Force

This blog was co-authored by Sam Uden, Director of Climate and Energy Policy at Conservation Strategy Group.

California has set ambitious climate goals, including 90% zero-carbon electricity supply for retail customers by 2035 and 100% by 2045, as well as 100% zero-emission light-duty vehicle sales by 2035. A rapid expansion in transmission is key to unlocking the enormous amount of new and distributed clean energy resources needed to achieve these goals. However, it currently takes over a decade to build new transmission projects in California. Without reducing these lead times, it is highly unlikely that California will be able to meet its world-leading climate ambitions.

There are two main factors behind California’s slow transmission rollout. The first is the time lag between the time a transmission project is approved by the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) and the time an investor-owned utility submits its permit application to the California California California State Commission. California Public Utilities (CPUC). Second, there is the CPUC’s own permitting process, including the time it takes to approve the Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (CPCN).

In this post, we focus on the second controller. We compared California’s own CPCN process to that of other western states, including approval time and the availability of an expedited review. We then look beyond the West, comparing California’s broadcast permit requirements to those of New York and Texas. We conclude by highlighting some promising California legislative efforts designed to improve permitting efficiency.

The slowdown of transmission in California

Transmission permit processes in California are lengthy and complex. A recent report from the Clean Air Task Force, Transmission development in California: what is the slowdown? describes the transmission project approval process in detail, including project development phases, trends of past and ongoing projects, and timelines for CAISO-approved projects. The report finds that major projects often take a decade or more before construction begins, and enabling them requires extensive coordination between CAISO, the CPUC, and utilities. According to the report, “long timelines and crippling delays continue to challenge current and future construction rates.” CATF recommends revisions to current planning and permitting processes so that California more quickly authorizes new transmission capacity, connects new clean generation to the grid, and meets its clean energy and climate goals. Separate stakeholder analyzes and articles have come to similar findings about the slowness of California’s broadcast permitting processes.

Transmission development in California is taking longer than anticipated

Fountain: “Growing the Grid” A Plan to Accelerate California’s Clean Energy Transition

Other western states are faster in the draw

We review and cross-check the approval timelines for transmission projects in ten western states, including California. The perspective of the western states is relevant because they are neighbors of California and share energy resources across borders, but are not governed by a centralized grid planner like CAISO. We examined states’ project size thresholds for requiring state regulatory approval, legal and informed timelines for processing transmission siting permits, and legal and informed timelines for the PUC or siting authority to make a final decision on the permit: the last step in the process for the project. approval.

In our review of transmission project approval timelines, the CPUC’s 19-month time frame was the longest of any Western state to reach a final decision on a SCPC. California’s timeline is nearly a year longer than a developer would expect in Colorado and New Mexico, two states that also have ambitious climate goals. California’s statute allows an additional 5 months for this decision-making than the next slowest state, Washington, which unlike California has a process to expedite review of priority transmission projects. In addition, the CPUC can exceed its statutory schedule and indefinitely delay a project permit decision. In other states, such as Arizona and Colorado, the PUC’s failure to meet the deadline results in automatic approval of the project and the issuance of a permit. Overall, and despite some data gaps, it appears that California has the slowest transmission permits in the West.

Western State CPCN Reported and Statutory Permit Grant Timeframes

How California Compares to New York and Texas

Looking beyond the West, we compare California’s CPCN broadcast permits with those of New York and Texas. Those states are similar to California in that they are densely populated, have single-state grid planners and market operators like CAISO (NYISO and ERCOT) that are responsible for transmission planning, and also have PUC processes.

We found that, as in California, in each case, the PUC must approve or deny a transmission project application to a CPCN. We also found that the PUCs in all three states generally review the following elements: the need for the proposed project, potential environmental and cultural concerns, utilization of the right-of-way, and the methods used for construction.

However, our investigation found that only California requires an evaluation of a “non-project alternative” in order for an applicant to receive a SCPC. Specifically, California requires the CPUC to consider “The availability of cost-effective alternatives to transmission, such as energy efficiency measures and distributed generation.” This requirement largely duplicates a similar determination made by CAISO and is in addition to the CPUC’s environmental reviews under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). This “no-project alternative” is required even though CAISO independently identifies transmission development needs in its transmission planning process, including distributed generation and energy efficiency assumptions provided directly by the CPUC.

Additionally, we find that Texas and New York have avenues to accelerate transmission projects. In Texas, a project designated by the state PUC as “reliability critical” can receive an expedited permit that cuts the decision-making time on an application in half from 12 months to 6 months. In New York, a project that is determined to have no adverse environmental impacts or is planned for an existing right-of-way may receive an expedited permit that shortens the statutory review period to 9 months from the typical 12 to 18 months. There are no such expedited permitting pathways for a CPCN in California, although the CPUC leads CEQA and CPCN permit reviews for transmission lines.

Where do we go from here?

The current transmission development process in California is marked by delays. The state has the longest legal timeline of any western state to approve a CPCN, there are no avenues to expedite CPCN permitting, and the “no-project alternative” analysis required by the CPCN review process doubles the CPUC inputs into the CAISO transmission planning process and is in addition to environmental reviews under CEQA.

It is important to note that there are two efforts underway to address at least some of these challenges. Among them, SB 619 (Padilla) and SB 420 (Becker) would consolidate broadcast permitting authority into a single state agency and eliminate unnecessary redundancies in the permitting process.

Regardless of the outcome of these proposals, it is clear that California’s leadership in climate policy does not currently compare to its leadership in the deployment of clean energy infrastructure.