Western utilities submitted a plan Friday to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for integrating control of the region's transmission grid, but implementation will likely not begin until 2005, project coordinator Bud Krogh said.
And, cautioned Avista Corp. spokesman Hugh Imhof, several problems could scuttle the effort.
Krogh said FERC must be flexible as it weighs the plan submitted by RTO West, short for regional transmission operator in the West, which encompasses most of region from the border with Mexico north across the Canadian border into British Columbia.
FERC has ordered all utilities with transmission facilities to submit plans for bringing them under the control of several RTOs that will be formed around the United States.
The goal, Krogh said, is more efficient use of available generating capacity by giving all plant owners equal access to transmission grids at uniform prices.
Otherwise, a California plant owner selling electricity in Oregon might have to pay a series of companies for the use of their wires, a procedure called "pancaking."
But the model FERC adopted for regional grid management was built around systems that cover relatively small regions that rely on thermal generating plants like those burning coal, Krogh said.
In the West, with its size and significant dependence on hydroelectric plants, accommodations should be made for the seasonality of that resource, and other demands for its use, such as fish passage, he said.
"We're asking for some flexibility in their market design to fit our circumstances," Krogh said.
One estimate pegs the potential savings from RTO West at as much as $140 million per year.
Avista is one of seven investor-owned utilities participating in RTO West. The other players are the Bonneville Power Administration and the British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority.
The overlap of government jurisdictions complicates resolution of all the issues confronting RTO West organizers, Krogh said.
Imhof said Avista recognizes the need to move the RTO process along, but has reservations.
Would Avista, for example, be liable for damages in Nevada caused by a breakdown in its Inland Northwest grid, he asked. Or, Imhof continued, who would be responsible for fulfilling a power-supply contract negotiated by an RTO user - like an Enron - that goes bankrupt?
He said Avista officials do not want to put the company or its customers at risk.
"Some of these things could be deal-breakers," he said.
"Our No. 1 issue is reliability."