Federal Agencies to Assist with Clean Energy Development in the West

June 17, 2009

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DOE and other federal agencies announced on June 15 that they will help the West to tap its clean energy potential and create green jobs. DOE and the Western Governor's Association (WGA) released a joint report that takes the first steps toward identifying areas in the West that have the potential for large-scale renewable energy developments with low environmental impacts. The "Western Renewable Energy Zones - Phase 1 Report" identifies geographic areas with at least 1,500 megawatts (MW) of high-quality renewable energy resources within a 100-mile radius, excluding environmentally sensitive areas and other high-value lands. The report identifies 37 "hubs" for renewable energy development in the 11 western states, as well as 15 hubs in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia (including one that straddles the border with the United States), plus 2 hubs in Mexico's Baja California. The states, provinces, and Baja California are all part of the same transmission network, the Western Interconnect. The hubs have not yet been screened for wildlife sensitivities.

The hubs cluster together in the sunny, geothermally active Desert Southwest and along the windy eastern border of the region, but renewable energy hubs are present in every western state and province. Combined, the hubs have enough renewable energy resources to potentially support nearly 200,000 MW of renewable power, including 95,219 MW of wind power, 86,921 MW of solar power, 4,478 MW of geothermal power, 8,452 MW of hydropower (all in Canada), and 3,720 MW of biomass power. Focusing only on the United States, and excluding the hub that straddles the Canadian border, the hubs could potentially support more than 180,000 MW of renewable power, including 93,655 MW of wind power, 81,930 MW of solar power, 4,138 MW of geothermal power, and 2,573 MW of biomass power. That's enough to generate about 453 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. For comparison, the entire U.S. generating capacity equaled roughly a million megawatts in 2007 and generated 4.16 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity. The U.S. hubs might also support an estimated 25,810 MW of geothermal power that would draw on resources that haven't been discovered yet, but are inferred to be present based on our knowledge of each area's geology. See the WGA press release and the full report.

Going forward, federal agencies and the WGA will screen the renewable energy hubs for wildlife sensitivities, thereby identifying what will be known as Western Renewable Energy Zones. To help with that effort, DOE, the Interior Department, and the Department of Agriculture have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the WGA to enhance state wildlife data systems with improved mapping and data. This work will help to minimize the impact of energy development on wildlife corridors and key habitats. Once the Western Renewable Energy Zones are identified, DOE and the WGA will then form a plan for transmission lines to deliver the renewable energy from the zones to the region's cities and will evaluate the relative economic costs of delivering that power. That work will provide a foundation for future development of renewable energy and electric transmission systems in the West.

Taking full advantage of the renewable energy potential in the West will require long-term, coordinated transmission planning across the United States. To help achieve that goal, DOE announced $80 million in new funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, including a $60 million solicitation to support regional transmission system planning. The remaining $20 million will support additional transmission and demand analysis to be performed by DOE's national laboratories and by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation. DOE is also offering $50 million in Recovery Act funds to help states and public utility commissions throughout the country to accelerate reviews of the large number of electric utility requests expected under the Recovery Act. An additional $39.5 million in Recovery Act funding will be available for state governments to ensure the resiliency of the electrical grid. The funds can be used by cities and states to hire or retrain staff in order to address such issues as integrating smart grid technology into the transmission network. See the DOE press release.