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Power patchwork a worry in West

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A patchwork of 15,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines forms the backbone of PacifiCorp's efforts to ensure electricity reaches its 1.5 million customers.

It is that haphazard assortment that has company officials and government leaders concerned over a surge in electricity demand that could lead to a power outage rivaling last month's East Coast blackout, the biggest in U.S. and Canadian history.

The problem appears to be growing more severe, with major blackouts occurring across the United States about once a year, whereas they used to occur once a decade, according to Robert Card, undersecretary for energy, science and environment at the U.S. Department of Energy.

Here in the West, lack of new infrastructure has led to a transmission logjam, according to Lara Azar, press secretary for Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal.

"Experts tell us it has been at least 10 to 15 years since there has been significant transmission upgrades in the West," Azar said.

Simply put, the Western power grid was never built as a regional grid, Bill Landels, PacifiCorp's executive vice president, told members of the Utah Board of Business and Economic Development Friday.

"We have capacity blockages in the Western system," Landels said. "I think, fundamentally, a patchwork approach to our Western grid has a limited life. It cannot go on."

In fact, over the past three years as electric generation within the Western grid has grown by 20 percent, Landels said, new transmission facilities have increased by only 1 percent.

PacifiCorp's chief executive, Judi Johansen, told Western governors earlier this week that most of the regional system was not built with interconnection in mind. Indecision within the regulatory arena also has made it difficult for utilities to raise the necessary capital to expand their transmission systems. That leads to a constrained grid where natural gas-fired power plants, subject to the price volatility of the market, often are located near load centers.

"The regional grid is regional, not a single state grid," Johansen said. "Planning must be made strategically, not incrementally."

Landels also stresses the need for a single transmission plan.

"A strategic plan recognizes that the transmission systems aren't state issues," he said.

PacifiCorp's message has apparently reached the attention of state officials, who see reliable, low-cost electricity as one economic driver for the region.

On Monday, the Western Governors' Association passed a resolution encouraging the creation of a centralized gridwide database that would track prospective electrical demand, generation and transmission facilities. The governors also called for a streamlined permitting process for siting new electrical transmission lines and supported the use of tax-exempt bonds to expand transmission infrastructure.

Later this month, Freudenthal and Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt will cosponsor a transmission planning initiative, where consumer groups, industry members and regulatory agencies will come together to address the Western grid's transmission shortcomings.

E-mail: danderton@desnews.com