By Joshua T. Bledsoe, Marc T. Campopiano, and Max Friedman

As California begins to turn the page on the first chapter of its efforts to combat climate change through AB 32 and to prepare for greater emissions reductions over the coming decades, the California Energy Commission (CEC) and California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) are considering what these changes will mean for electricity transmission infrastructure. To that end, CEC Chair Robert Weisenmiller and CPUC President Michael Picker sent a letter to Cal-ISO President and CEO Stephen Berberich on July 31, 2015 asking him to participate in the planning stages of the Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative (RETI) 2.0. Since 2008, the first iteration of RETI has served as a statewide initiative to identify and implement the energy transmission projects needed to accommodate California’s renewable energy requirements.

Now, with Governor Brown’s executive order to cut California’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and a number of legislative proposals advancing to set further greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets for 2030 and beyond, as well as the US EPA’s federal Clean Power Plan encouraging regional coordination among states to increase renewable electricity production, the CEC and CPUC feel that the time has come to bring RETI up to date.

Citing previous successes of the RETI program, including the Sunrise Powerlink (a high-voltage transmission line for renewable energy that was employed at full capacity by renewable sources within one year of electrification and served as a critical power source for Southern California following the closure of the San Onofre nuclear power plant), Weisenmiller and Picker maintain that identifying additional potential transmission corridors around the state will be essential to further increasing the state’s renewable capacity. With significant renewable energy production set to occur in California’s southeastern desert region as part of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, additional transmission lines to transport this energy to population centers will be critical in coming years.

Anticipating and planning for the needs of the state’s evolving energy market will, however, require more than constructing new transmission lines. In their letter to Cal-ISO, Weisenmiller and Picker noted that it would be critical to give careful consideration “to existing transmission capacity that may be freed up as older, less efficient conventional power plants decommission, [allowing] for additional low-carbon options to take their place.” Balancing new and old transmission infrastructure will be complex and data-intensive, illustrating why RETI 2.0 will be so important to California’s shifting energy needs in the coming decades.

Complicating things still further, the federal Clean Power Plan, released shortly after the July 31 RETI 2.0 letter, encourages greater coordination and communication among states across the region, incentivizing them to work together to increase renewable energy use. For California, this represents an opportunity, because states to its east reach peak load several hours earlier. Thus, with adequate transmission lines in place, California could export clean electricity (e.g., from utility-scale solar farms) to these states during the beginning of their peak consumption hours and import wind energy from the Midwest and Great Plains when those states are past peak (but wind capacity is high) and California’s energy needs are at their peak. Anticipating such increasing levels of interstate coordination, CEC and CPUC have expressed interest in engaging regional stakeholders in the RETI 2.0 planning process, while still respecting the jurisdiction of regulators in other states around the West.

CEC and CPUC anticipate that the planning process for RETI 2.0 will take place over the coming year, beginning with a joint agency workshop to introduce RETI 2.0, which took place on September 10. The joint workshop addressed subjects including transmission planning and the particular challenges of planning transmission for renewable energy, how best to approach environmental analysis in the context of statewide planning for renewable energy, and an overview of lessons learned from RETI 1.0. The agencies have also planned a series of workshops with CalISO, beginning in October, to engage with interested stakeholders, Native American tribes, and federal, state, and local agencies.

The public can post comments about RETI 2.0 to the CEC’s website until 4:00 p.m. on September 24, 2015; the comment page is available here. The agencies aim to have recommendations for the 2030 Renewables Portfolio Standard ready by the fall of 2016.

Latham & Watkins LLP will continue to monitor these developments as they unfold.