Governors: Energy shortage not only problem

SALT LAKE CITY - The West doesn't just face a power shortage. Its transmission system is fragmented and overworked and would take years to improve, power officials told the region's governors Wednesday.

They said building new transmission lines is just as crucial as boosting power production and conserving energy to solve the California crisis that is raising electricity rates across the West.

But there is no established method for paying for transmission upgrades, and market and regulatory barriers stand in the way. It's not even clear where new power lines are most needed.

The Western Governors' Association hoped to find solutions at a six-hour round-table Wednesday. Instead, the group - which included the governors of Utah, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming as well as industry representatives, state and federal regulators and tribal officials - gave energy experts until July 15 to recommend ways to eliminate bottlenecks.

"There is no immediate solution," said Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne.

Even if Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah build more coal-fired power plants, they have no reliable way to delivery the power to California or other places where it is most needed.

"It's a serious rush-hour problem," said Jim Byrne of the Western Regional Transmission Association. "At key times, when prices are high, most of the system is heavily used."

The problem lies in the fact that the West has a patchwork of separately owned transmission lines and little incentive to finance overall improvements. Any upgrade would require coordination of multiple states, power generators and utilities and a cost-sharing deal - one of the goals of the governors' group.

"Who's in charge? Who decides where to build the next transmission line?" asked Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer.

At one point he suggested leaving the job to the federal government, much like the interstate highway system. But that was funded with a national gasoline tax, and there is no equivalent for power delivery.

Technical hurdles would complicate the effort. Transmission lines can be upgraded with thicker wires to carry more voltage but the work would put those lines out of commission, making shortages worse.

"It's critical for the Western economy that we get it right," said Alan Richardson, president and chief executive officer of PacifiCorp, which is based in Oregon and has customers in Washington, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho and Northern California.

No new transmission line has been planned in the West in five years, said Jack Davis, president of Pinnacle West Capital Corp. of Phoenix. Power generators can't own transmission lines, which is good for competition but bad for maintaining a reliable system, Davis said.

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