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The Great Electricity Transmission Debate — How Much Is Enough?

Many people want to build new transmission lines for renewable energy like solar and wind. We dive into the issues, pro and con, on this matter.

Jigar Shah is the head of the loan program at the US Department of Energy. In other words, he is the guy in charge of handing out the cash that will support President Biden’s clean energy goals. This week on LinkedIn, Shah pasted this paragraph from a Washington Post article that appeared on May 18: “The United States needs an estimated 950 gigawatts of clean energy and around 225 gigawatts of storage to substantially clean up its electricity sector. But, almost unbelievably, projects accounting for more than 1,200 gigawatts of clean energy and more than 650 gigawatts of storage have already been proposed; they just can’t get connected to the grid.”

The inference, of course, is that if we could just unblock access to the grid so that all these projects can get built and brought online, America could run on clean renewable energy and that would go a long way toward the nation’s goal of slashing its carbon emissions.

The fix, it seems, is to build lots of new transmission lines so that when the sun sets in New York, zero-emissions electricity from California can be whisked across the nation to turn the lights on in the Big Apple. That may be an oversimplification, but it’s essentially what a lot of smart people in government and the renewable energy sector are thinking.

As the Washington Post points out, the issue could become part of the protracted debt ceiling talks currently going on in the nation’s capitol. However, the politics of any deal are complicated. Democrats want to focus on building interstate power lines, while Republicans want to speed up the process of building thermal power plants fed fossil fuels.

The Post article goes on to say that at the present time, key areas of the grid are at capacity — imagine a freeway traffic jam — and new wind and solar can’t be added unless the grid is upgraded, which costs developers money. According to data from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the number of renewable projects waiting in the queue has skyrocketed in recent years.

Joe Rand, an energy policy researcher at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory says, “It’s kind of a double-edged sword. There’s the really good news that all this clean energy capacity is trying to connect to the grid. But then there’s the backlog and bottlenecks and barriers.” The result, he says, is that many of those proposed projects are withdrawn due to the high costs of connecting to the grid.

According to Rand’s data, only 21 percent of the projects entering the long line ultimately get built. It now takes an average of about five years for an energy project to become operational once it enters the queue.

Transmission Lines Are Key

Transmission lines electricity farm

Photo courtesy of Kyle Field.

“Congress should reform the transmission interconnection queue so that new generation projects are not stuck in line,” the White House said in a statement last week. But that’s not the end of the story, the Post says. Equally as important is getting more transmission lines built.

“The best sites for wind and solar happen to be in the sunny Southwest or the windy Midwest,” said Johan Cavert, a transmission policy analyst at the Niskanen Center. “And those areas are just not near the biggest population centers.”

One of the biggest hurdles to getting those long-distance transmission lines built is that they cross many state boundaries, which opens the permitting process to local objections. In recent years, the number of local communities that have rejected wind and solar farms has risen dramatically according to the Renewable Rejection Database managed by journalist Robert Bryce.

Many Democrats want to enact new rules that would allow the federal government the power to override those local objections, some of which come from people who don’t like the look of transmission lines or worry about losing their rural “way of life.” The state of New York recently transferred many of the siting decisions for renewable energy projects, including transmission lines, to state agencies, which reduces the ability of local communities to delay the rollout of clean energy, but that’s not a strategy that would play well in the hinterlands if implemented at the federal level.

With the present system, it takes 8 to 15 years to get a new transmission line approved and built. By contrast, an oil pipeline needs only about 3 years. Republicans have suggested narrowing the timeline for environmental reviews, which would ease some of the opposition to energy projects. However, the change would apply to both fossil fuel projects and clean energy projects.

The Biden administration has supported a plan put forth by Senator Joe Manchin which would impose a two-year time limit on reviews and allow developers to sue if the process extends beyond that. This proposal includes more authority for building transmission, but would also approve the fossil gas Mountain Valley Pipeline, a project that has faced strong opposition from those who live along its path.

Point, Counterpoint On Transmission

On LinkedIn, Doug Houseman pointed out that many of those projects awaiting approval to connect to  the grid were never intended to be built. Instead, they are placeholders put there to force people to buy them out.

“They are squatters, looking for a payday. The estimate is between 50 and 67% of what is in the various ISO queues are purely speculative. We need to change the ‘cost’ of putting a project in the queue. Much of the wait time to get permission to connect is because of those squatters. Fix that and the queues will flow much faster. It is why PJM and CAISO are both proposing ‘first ready’ instead of ‘in queue’ order.”

Doug Sheridan makes the counter argument, “With respect, one can only imagine the mayhem that would result if these projects were all allowed onto the grid in an expedited manner. Market-distorting subsidies would allow them all to be profitable, even as they crowd out more reliable and affordable legacy (and future) thermal generation.

“We’d be left with a fragile, untrustworthy grid that produced wildly expensive power and necessitated blackouts whenever Mother Nature didn’t cooperate. We’d be the laughing stock of the world for shooting ourselves in the foot and undermining our economy. It would be disheartening to our allies and encouraging to our enemies. Please, let’s step back — while we still can.” Is that really the case?

The Case For Distributed Renewables

“All politics is local,” TIP O’Neill liked to say. The notion of an enormous number of high-voltage transmission lines crisscrossing the country to bring solar electricity from New Mexico or wind energy from Montana to Chicago is all very appealing, but it is also likely to be hugely expensive. Perhaps instead of thinking of Arizona and California as batteries for the rest of the country, we should consider making more of the country self-sufficient when it comes to electrical power.

Yes, we know there is less sunshine in Minneapolis than there is in Mobile, but it’s not nothing. There is wind everywhere, and while some parts of the nation are windier than others, there are few places where the wind doesn’t blow at least some of the time. Then there are other alternatives such as geothermal energy, an as yet untapped resource available to people everywhere. There are also many ways to store electricity that are less costly than lithium-ion battery packs.

Demand response strategies can also reduce the amount of electricity we need to generate. We should be working harder to recover waste heat and reduce energy losses from our built environment. Every kWh of energy saved is a kWh of electricity that doesn’t need to be generated and imported from far away. It’s a “Don’t raise the bridge, lower the river” approach that could pay tremendous dividends.

Maybe we should think smarter instead of trying to jam national solutions down the throats of local communities. Virtual power plants and local microgrids deserve to play a larger role in the conversation. Thomas Edison invented the energy grid 100 years ago. Maybe it’s time to think outside the grid.

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