Several utility heads made their case as part of a wide-ranging discussion at the annual Western Governors' Association meeting, held this year near the Grand Teton Mountains in northwestern Wyoming.
Americans are using increasing amounts of electricity, but the process of building new electricity transmission lines is often bogged down in state-by-state permitting battles, the utility directors said.
Since 2000, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has signed off on more than 10,000 miles of interstate natural gas pipelines, compared with 970 miles of interstate electricity lines, said Michael Niggli, chief operating officer of San Diego Gas & Electric.
I have a feeling this is going to change if we're going to meet the mission the governors have for a renewable society and a non-carbon society in terms of generation, Niggli said. Electric transmission is a key element in unlocking substantial environmental value, not only on renewable energy development, but ultimately, if you can electrify transportation, you end up with fewer emissions.
For their part, the governors supported boosting electricity transmission to harness the solar and wind power potential present in many western states.
Many of our resources, whether it's wind or sun or geothermal, they're out in rural areas. There's not a lot of people out there, and we just don't have any infrastructure, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman said. If we're going to take this whole energy piece on the renewable side seriously... we've got to get the transmission and infrastructure piece right.
With demand for electricity in the West growing at 1.5 times the national average, utility companies will be seeking a broad range of sources, including nuclear power, said Jeff Sterba, president and chief executive of New Mexico-based PNM Resources.
Over 35 percent of the resources we will need in 2030 don't exist yet, Sterba said. We've got to ensure they come increasingly from zero or really low emissions resources, and that creates a huge challenge.
The utility heads said state governments can help meet the region's energy needs by spearheading conservation efforts, facilitating the regulatory process of building new transmission lines and helping the utility companies with the time and money they need to develop clean-energy technology, including viable methods of capturing carbon emissions.
The executives said they don't anticipate the construction of many more traditional coal power plants, beyond those already under development.
The big guys in the industry say that's a technology of the past, said Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, whose state has rich coal resources in the Powder River Basin.
That means that we are demanding that the investment is made in carbon capture technology and we're demanding the federal government creates the legal framework for us to start capturing this carbon, he said.