WASHINGTON — Sen. Harry Reid introduced legislation Thursday to speed development of a green-powered electricity system, an effort he said was a big part of his vision of a nation that might someday run on renewable energy.
"Reforming our energy policies to build a cleaner, greener, national transportation system — an electric superhighway — must be a top national priority," Reid said as he submitted the bill, called the Clean Renewable Energy and Economic Development Act.
The measure sponsored by the Senate majority leader from Nevada is expected to receive considerable attention in Congress this year as lawmakers focus on President Barack Obama's goals to increase use of solar, wind and other renewable energy sources.
The Senate energy committee has scheduled a hearing on the bill, and it is expected to be rolled into broad legislation the panel plans to write later this month.
The bill expands authority for federal electricity regulators to keep projects on track, a matter expected to spark debate on states' rights. The power to locate transmission lines traditionally has been guarded by the states.
But streamlined planning and utility line siting could save years, a Reid aide said. A high voltage transmission project that normally would take eight to 16 years to build could be completed in three to five years under deadlines set by the measure.
Under the bill the government would designate zones that hold the potential to generate 1 gigawatt of electricity from geothermal, solar, wind or other natural sources but that cannot be reached by the present grid.
It directs states, utilities and developers to cooperate in forming plans to integrate renewables into the current transmission system, to map new lines and conduct studies of what could be saved through new efforts at energy efficiency.
The government through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would be authorized to step in "to keep things moving" if there are delays anywhere in the process, Reid said.
The bill also seeks to streamline siting for new transmission lines. It gives FERC authority to exercise eminent domain and to issue construction permits for projects as a "backstop" to states.
FERC also would have authority to allocate costs of the projects among stakeholders if they are unable to do so themselves.
The bill requires transmission projects that use federal siting authority to carry at least 75 percent of their capacity from renewable sources. It also authorizes the Energy Department to make grants to states and organizations that participate in site planning and that make improvements to the transmission system.
Scot Rutledge, executive director of the Nevada Conservation League, said several areas in Nevada with "excellent solar, wind and geothermal resources" could be designated special renewable energy zones.
"Right now, only a small percentage of Nevada's power comes from renewable energy because it's impossible to get energy from remote areas of Nevada, where it is generated, to the cities that need it," Rutledge said. "Senator Reid's bill will encourage renewable energy development in Nevada, create thousands of new, green jobs, and put Nevada on the map as a leader in a clean energy economy."
State utility regulators responded cautiously to Reid's proposal.
Frederick Butler, chairman of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, said in a statement that the group hopes to work with Reid on the issue. "We are optimistic that our continued dialogue will produce a better outcome for consumers and the environment," he said of the proposal.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760.