WASHINGTON - America's biggest providers of electric power got a mild jolt April 24 from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's plan to give small power generators access to their power transmission lines. The FERC, empowered by the 1992 Electricity Policy Act, issued a notice of its intent to order all utilities ``owning, controlling or operating transmission lines'' to charge the same amount for access to those lines as they would assess themselves, according to FERC spokeswoman Barbara A. Connors.
It was a jolt, but utilities were expecting it. Wholesale electricity providers have anticipated the breakup of utility monopolies made possible by the 1992 law.
``The [electricity] industry has become more competitive in the generation sector, but not in the transmission sector,'' Connors said.
Still, the law only requires large, wholesale power providers to make the concessions.
Most operators in the plastics processing industry are retail customers and would continue to purchase their power from retail providers, Conners said. The rules that more directly will affect the processor community will be those passed on a state level, she said.
California became the leader in that area on April 28, when it proposed to the FERC a plan to introduce competition among the state's three largest utilities. Agreeing to ``pool'' control of their transmission systems in the hands of an independent operator, the idea would see that the cheapest power is delivered fairly to consumers.
Connors said the California Public Utilities Commission, under which the proposal to the FERC was made, ``waited for the FERC notices to come out, then they acted. They are the first, but other states, like New York and Massachusetts, are following suit,'' she said.
The order also would allow big providers to recoup some of the money spent on capital improvements to provide service - the ``stranded costs'' of the industry. The FERC suggests these large utilities first go to large wholesale customers and ask for help in paying for these costs, then to smaller customers.
Stranded costs are the bone of contention in deregulation for most utilities. Several contend some capital expenditures - most notably, those to build and maintain nuclear power plants - may never be recovered unless the utilities are allowed to charge rates sufficient to cover the costs.
A second FERC notice of intent ``would ensure that transmission owners do not have an unfair competitive advantage in using transmission to sell power,'' Connors said.
The proposed order would require utilities to share electronically any information about their available transmission capacity. Connors said it would assure that wholesale power marketing and transmission functions were separate.