Sacramento Municipal Utility District, the largest utility funding partner in the Transportation Agency of Northern California’s high-voltage transmitter project, announced last week it was pulling out. The Sacramento utility’s decision — one month before the July 30 public scoping comment deadline — raises new questions about the viability of the controversial project.

TANC has postponed all remaining public outreach meetings scheduled for July, but it will honor the public scoping deadline as part of the required Environmental Impact Review process, said TANC spokesperson Brendan Wonnacott.

“TANC, its members as well as Western and other government agencies involved in the process are going to take a step back and weigh the options and determine the next steps in the process,” he said.

Wonnacott refused to speculate about why SMUD withdrew its support. “I’ll leave that to them to answer, just as a courtesy. They’re obviously members of TANC, but they’ve just pulled out of this project.”

SMUD was one of five Northern California municipal utilities that committed to fund the planning stage of the $1.5 billion TANC Transmission Project. The other funders (Redding, Santa Clara, Modesto and Turlock) contributed proportionately smaller amounts, but at nearly 35 percent, SMUD’s contribution was substantial. While 15 utilities are members of TANC, only these five are project funders. The proposed transmission lines run through at least eight Northern California counties from Lassen to Santa Clara.

“We’ve spent $2 million to date for our part in the scoping and planning process,” said SMUD Communications Director Elizabeth Brinton. “We didn’t feel that it was appropriate to continue spending more money. We had enough information to make a decision it wasn’t right for us.” Additional reports and studies released since the TANC project began were added factors in the decision.

Brinton said the customer-owned, nonprofit utility questioned both the overall economics of the project and whether TANC could bring in enough new, renewable energy resources to meet the California Renewables Portfolio Standard goals.

“You can’t look at transmission in isolation,” said Brinton. “We looked at a broad range of renewable resources: biomass and waste energy as well as traditional renewables, wind and solar. For us, it’s a whole variety of different factors that come into play.”

SMUD envisions a more integrated energy resource plan than that proposed by TANC. “We started utility-level solar 25 years ago. We’ve been a leader in renewables and we’re right on track to make the state goal of 20 percent of the RPS. We really believe it’s going to be a combination of different alternatives altogether,” said Brinton.

Timeline For Renewables

A key concern has emerged during the public scoping process: whether the TTP will develop new, renewable energy from low-polluting sources or continue with current electrical energy technologies. California’s stringent energy laws mandate that utilities include at least 20 percent of renewable energy resources in their energy portfolios by the end of 2010 and increase that amount to 33 percent by 2020.

“The California Energy Commission has a renewable energy transmission initiative,” said Wonnacott. “They identify other areas of renewable energy resources — four major areas in Northern California — two of which are in Lassen County; another is near Round Mountain and another in Solano. The TTP would provide transmission access to more than 85 percent of the Northern California renewable energy resources that are identified through that RETI process.”

“The main thing for us is we still strongly believe that the TTP is needed to insure reliable and affordable energy service for residents and businesses throughout California. The TTP would also expand access to clean energy sources, geothermal, solar and wind.”

Wonnacott also believes it’s important to see the pullout in terms of TANC’s timeline for the project. “Preliminary planning lasts several years, as does environmental review. We’re still in the public scoping period of the environmental review process,” he said.  After the July 30 deadline, a detailed scoping report will summarize all issues and concerns identified in the scoping period. Then the formal Environmental Impact Report process begins, with a tentative deadline in 2011.

“A final determination is made after this EIR process, and it’s at that point that TANC, Western and other cooperating agencies independently decide to proceed with the construction of the line, and those decisions are years off.”

Finding Another Partner

“It won’t go forward ‘no matter what’; it is in jeopardy,” said Paul Hauser, electric director of Redding Electric Utility and TANC board member. “I think there does need to be another entity to step up and take the vast majority of SMUD’s commitment.”

Hauser hasn’t yet discussed SMUD’s decision with either TANC staff or other members, but he anticipates doing so early this week.

Redding, the smallest contributor, has spent less than half of its $600,000 budget so far on the TTP planning stage. Finding another contributor with the size and funding capacity of SMUD is no easy task.

“It would need to be a fairly large entity,” Hauser said. “To look realistically at the size of the other participants, there’s not the ability to take on the cost burden. Of the other 15 members, if you look at their size — you’re talking about Biggs, Gridley, Alameda — they’re very small entities, and that’s the reason they’re not a part.”

Also an issue is a utility’s transmission capacity and the amount of renewable energy it needs. “Alameda has plenty of renewables, Ukiah has plenty of renewables,” said Hauser, so they aren’t likely to re-think their decisions not to fund. “Sacramento is more than 10 times our size; we don’t need as much transmission capacity as it does. You need somebody that’s really capable, of significant size, capable of carrying the size of Sacramento,” he said.

Another major utility, PG&E, is obviously pursuing planning on its own line, said Hauser, and Western Area Power Administration (a government agency allied with TANC) played the role as administrator and leader for the National Environmental Policy Act.

“Since this project the Obama administration has come in, and now the Obama administration has a strong desire to build transportation for renewable purposes. I’m sure the TANC staff is investigating some of these things.”

Hauser is uncertain of the final outcome. “TANC staff is basically regrouping and trying to determine the path forward, if any, from here.”