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Biden's clean power plans could get tripped up without new wires

·6 min read

President Joe Biden’s success in pursuing 100% carbon-free power by 2035 could come down to wires.

Interstate transmission lines are critical to transporting electricity from places, typically rural areas such as the Great Plains, that have an abundance of wind or solar to consumers in population centers that don’t generate significant renewable electricity.

Biden’s goals of carbon-free power by 2035 and net-zero emissions across the entire economy by 2050 will require a doubling or tripling of the U.S. transmission system, according to a report from the Energy Systems Integration Group, a nonprofit organization that advises on grid planning.

The problem facing Biden is that major long-distance transmission projects are notoriously difficult to build, often crumbling due to public opposition, and the primary siting authority lies with individual states, not the federal government.

“Everyone knows from an engineering perspective that more transmission makes all the sense in the world, but from a societal aspect, it just runs into roadblocks,” said Aaron Bloom, a board member of the Energy Systems Integration Group.

Bloom said the current transmission system is inadequate to support generating even half of the nation’s power coming from clean or zero-carbon sources, let alone 100%.

Transmission projects, which can require 10 or more years to be approved and developed, must undergo a diffuse permitting process that is subject to delay because of local opposition from people living near the planned power lines, a problem known as not-in-my-backyard-ism, or NIMBYism.

And the places where power lines would need to get built don’t necessarily benefit from using or generating the power, making it harder to get their approval to build.

“We sometimes see the biggest pushback when transmission lines appear to be an extension cord across a state,” said Heath Knakmuhs, vice president and policy counsel of the Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute.

Biden faces risks if Congress enacts his proposed clean electricity standard, a key plank of his infrastructure plan that would require utilities to generate 100% carbon-free electricity, without sufficient transmission built to spread massive amounts of clean energy between states.

“The biggest risk is you are going to end up not developing the most cost-effective resources you can,” said Jeff Dennis, managing director and general counsel of Advanced Energy Economy, a group representing clean energy companies. “You end up with a clean energy solution that costs more than it should.”

Biden’s $2.25 trillion green infrastructure plan being debated in Congress envisions a significant role for new transmission, which his administration is pitching as not just important to boost clean energy use, but to enable different regions to share power during crises, such as the recent blackouts in Texas.

The president, during a March speech in Pittsburgh, also touted building power lines as a job creator, noting that transmission is generally a union-heavy field.

Biden’s infrastructure plan calls for an investment tax credit to spur the construction of at least 20 gigawatts of long-distance transmission lines, a subsidy that proponents say can encourage independent developers who have to find their own financing to start construction.

He also proposes the creation of a federal transmission authority within the Department of Energy to coordinate planning, design, permitting, and the construction of new lines.

Separately, in April, the Transportation Department issued guidance to states on how to build transmission lines along existing highway right-of-ways.

Transmission along highways and roadways could break open quicker construction because the lines can be built underground, which is more expensive than an above-ground line but avoids the public backlash caused by visible power lines.

Previous administrations have promised action on transmission without fulfilling it. President Barack Obama entertained the idea of including transmission in the 2009 stimulus spending package after the recession, but advisers talked him out of it because constructing a new grid would take too long, and money needed to get out fast.

But experts say Biden’s ideas and actions amount to more than just baby steps.

“The administration is very serious about transmission,” said Rob Gramlich, executive director of Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, a coalition of clean energy groups that aims to expand the nation’s transmission system. “Joe Biden personally knows the importance of it both for jobs and climate.”

Biden also has an important ally prioritizing transmission policy in Richard Glick, the Democratic chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an independent body that oversees interstate energy infrastructure.

Unlike with natural gas pipelines, FERC has little power to approve transmission lines.

Glick, however, has suggested FERC might redefine who benefits from new transmission to allow the costs of projects to be spread more widely among users across the entire line.

Generally, new transmission lines are paid for by power generators building new projects, such as a wind farm, that require more transmission capacity.

But electricity users across different states that are connected to the same grid would benefit from the new transmission because they would be paying cheaper power prices resulting from more wind energy. So, those customers should bear some of the costs, say proponents of reforming the rules.

FERC already took interim policy steps this month, setting up a federal-state task force to explore how to resolve tensions between them in siting projects, along with nudging states to develop their own interstate projects jointly.

Michael Skelly, a clean energy entrepreneur known for his failure in the 2000s to build a big interstate transmission line, told the Washington Examiner he’s confident the changing policy environment will push projects across the finish line.

Skelly folded his company, Clean Line Energy Partners, in 2017, after local organizing, political agitating, federal government delays, and utility disinterest killed his plan to build a 720-mile line through the middle of the country.

But he notes that today, state and federal governments, along with utilities, are setting clean electricity goals that recognize the value of transmission.

“It is a somewhat different time now,” Skelly said. “At Clean Line, we knew transmission was the big problem, but now, everybody knows that.”

Americans for a Clean Energy Grid released a report in April identifying 22 “shovel ready” transmission projects across the country that, if constructed, would increase wind and solar generation in the U.S. by nearly 50%.

Many of the 22 projects have been underway for more than a decade, and most are already permitted, meaning construction could start soon if developers got help from the federal government, Skelly said.

After being out of the game for a few years, Skelly announced this month he is launching a new transmission development company called Grid United.

“Maybe, at Clean Line, we were too early, and so now feels like a good time to try again,” Skelly said.

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Tags: News, Energy and Environment, Magazine - Special Section, Electricity, Power Plants, Infrastructure, Clean Power Plan, Joe Biden, White House, Carbon

Original Author: Josh Siegel

Original Location: Biden's clean power plans could get tripped up without new wires