By Tom Kleckner
DENVER — SPP and the Mountain West Transmission Group pitched the benefits of RTO membership Tuesday in an open forum before Colorado’s Public Utilities Commission as the two entities pursue a possible collaboration.
Taking advantage of the opportunity to get the last words in, SPP COO Carl Monroe grabbed a podium microphone just before the meeting adjourned to let his audience know the RTO would be holding its regular quarterly governance meetings in Denver in July, and that it would be a chance to see first-hand how SPP works with its members.
Maybe not. SPP scheduled the meetings in the middle of last year, about the same time Mountain West was considering joining CAISO, MISO, PJM or SPP. Mountain West announced in January it was entering into discussions with SPP to further explore the relationship. (See Mountain West to Explore Joining SPP.)
The PUC scheduled the forum so regulators, consumer advocates and other stakeholders could gather information and discuss with Mountain West participants the potential benefits, costs and risks of the options under consideration. More than 70 attendees registered to participate, a number Commissioner Frances Koncilja noted was larger than normal.
Mountain West is an informal collaboration of 10 electricity service providers serving 6.4 million customers in the Rocky Mountains. Its members’ coincident peaks total just more than 12 GW, and it generated almost 70 million MWh of energy in 2015. Were it to join SPP, it would create a sprawling organization spread over 17 states.
Monroe told the commission that Mountain West would increase SPP’s size (575,000 square miles of service territory encompassing about 18 million people) by about a third. The new RTO’s Tariff would include seven of the eight DC ties between the Eastern and Western Interconnections, except for one in Canada. SPP also has two DC ties with the Texas Interconnection.
“We own the gateway facilities that go into” the ties, Monroe said. “We’ve spent a lot of time coordinating and understand those ties.”
“This is a very complicated transaction,” Koncilja told RTO Insider. “It will be up to the utilities to persuade us it’s a good thing for the ratepayers. This is just the first of many meetings.”
Mountain West members said they were pursing RTO membership to improve efficiency by eliminating pancake transmission rates and taking advantage of modern market designs to maximize transmission capacity. A 2016 Brattle Group study found Mountain West could save $53 million to $71 million annually through 2024 by participating in a day-ahead market and replacing its nine tariffs with a single one.
“It’s not that we have decided to go forward,” said Steve Beuning, Xcel Energy’s director of market operations. “We are in the process of evaluating what it means to go forward and [determining] the terms and conditions … that Mountain West considers essential before moving forward.”
Beuning said he was impressed by the knowledge in the group’s proposed RTO membership.
“This familiarity with the issues of our proposal, and an understanding of the particular needs of utility service providers in the western U.S., really helped lead to a deep and meaningful discussion,” he said.
Former FERC Commissioner Suedeen Kelly, an attorney with Akin Gump provided an overview of RTOs and ISOs, their functions and their regulatory relationship with FERC, while touting the virtues of regionalization and economic dispatch.
“The SPP transmission system is managed and operated for the same purpose as an individual system — to maintain reliability across the footprint and to dispatch generation,” she said. “There are no pancaked rates. Energy that flows from the northern end to the southern end pays one rate, no matter how many systems it touches.”
Jennifer Gardner, a staff attorney for Western Resource Advocates, praised SPP’s security constrained economic dispatch and its ability to create more renewable energy.
“By automatically dispatching resources where they’re needed, that allows us to deal with the variability of resources,” she said. “We see the immense potential for getting new renewable energy to the market” with SPP membership.
But Kelly also shared reasons for not joining an RTO.
“Why don’t we have one in the West?” she asked. “A lot of reasons, but to me, the most important, after being in California in 2000 when the California market imploded, is because the market imploded. We said, ‘Wait a minute, whatever they did, we don’t want to do.’”
Abby Briggerman, of counsel with Holland & Hart who generally speaks for large industrial ratepayers in the Rocky Mountains, and speaking on behalf of the ratepayer interests, said she was concerned about the risks of joining an RTO.
“We’ve come a long way since 2001, but we need to look no further than California. We remember the rolling blackouts,” she said. “The ratepayer must have a seat at the table in the decision-making process over whether to join an RTO.”
Briggerman also warned that SPP could be a “Hotel California,” referring to the Eagles’ song in which “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
“We need to make sure there are no barriers to exit,” she said.
Other attendees also questioned whether consumer interests would be lost in SPP.
SPP representatives, members and stakeholders countered by praising the RTO’s stakeholder engagement, and Monroe emphasized the diversity of is 94-entity strong membership. “We provide a lot of transparency into SPP,” he said. “Our meetings are open, even up to board level. We had 150 people at our last board meeting. Anybody that has ideas that will help SPP make good business decisions will be listened to.”
SPP General Counsel Paul Suskie brought up Steve Gaw, a former Missouri commissioner and legislator who represents The Wind Coalition at meetings although the coalition is not a member.
“He’s not a member, but he gets just as much input as members,” Suskie said.
SPP and Mountain West have developed a steering committee and working groups focused on governance, rate design and cost allocation, transmission planning, reliability coordination and SPP’s Regional State Committee. Composed of regulators from 10 different states, the RSC will be a key player in the membership negotiations.
Mountain West members said they expect to decide on whether to proceed with SPP membership in the second or third quarter of 2017. Rate cases would be filed shortly thereafter, with a final recommendation presented to SPP’s board in January 2018.
“I would be bold to call [the timeline] aggressive, but it keeps us on track. It keeps us focused on what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Mary Ann Zehr, senior manager of transmission contracts, rates and policy for the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association.
Zehr said she anticipates numerous meetings over the next few months devoted to writing a tariff, governance and membership agreements and bylaw changes.
“We’re attempting to answer those questions at the front end,” she said.