Transmission is Huge, Expensive Hurdle for Clean Energy

April 12, 2023


U.S. officials on Tuesday gave final approval for a company owned by billionaire Philip Anschutz to begin building a massive transmission line that will deliver wind energy from blustery Wyoming to power-hungry California.

The “notice to proceed” from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management allows TransWest Express LLC to break ground on its $3 billion line after more than 15 years of development. About two-thirds of the project will be on federal lands.

In a statement, the bureau said its approval of the 732-mile TransWest Express line was “a significant milestone in the Biden-Harris administration’s efforts to modernize America’s power infrastructure in the West and achieve a fully carbon-free electric grid by 2035.”

Big high-voltage transmission projects are seen as imperative to delivering large amounts of renewable power from far-flung windy and sunny regions to population centers. But permitting lines across a multi-state patchwork of private and public lands can take years.

A separate Anschutz firm owns the 600-turbine Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind farm in Wyoming, which is being built, that will send power through TransWest Express.

TransWest Express construction will start later this year and the first stage will be completed in 2027, the company said. The line will run from south central Wyoming, through Colorado, Utah and Nevada to a substation outside of Las Vegas.


Wind and solar power generators wait in yearslong bureaucratic lines to connect to the power grid, only to be faced with fees they can’t afford, forcing them to scramble for more money or pull out of projects completely.

This application process, called the interconnection queue, is delaying the distribution of clean power and hampering the U.S. in reaching its climate goals.

The interconnection queue backlog is a symptom of a larger climate problem for the United States: There are not enough transmission lines to support the transition from a fossil fuel-based electric system to a decarbonized energy grid.

The Oceti Sakowin Power Authority, a nonprofit governmental entity owned by seven Sioux Indian tribes, is working to build 570 megawatts of wind power generation to sell to customers in South Dakota.

“Economic development through renewable energy speaks to the very heart of Lakota culture and values – being responsible stewards of Grandmother Earth, Unci Maka,” Jonathan E. Canis, general counsel for the Oceti Sakowin Power Authority, told CNBC. “Together our tribes occupy almost 20% of the land area of South Dakota. And the experts who have been measuring our wind resources literally describe them as ‘screamin.’.”

To connect wind power generation to the electric grid and make money from the sale of that power, the Oceti Sakowin Power Authority — like every electricity generator in the U.S. — has to submit an application called an interconnection request to whichever organization is overseeing the coordination of the electric grid in that region. Sometimes it’s a regional transmission planning authority, other times a utility.

In late 2017, the Oceti Sakowin Power Authority paid a $2.5 million deposit to secure a place in line for its application to be reviewed by the Southwest Power Pool, a regional grid operator.

Five years later, in 2022, the Southwest Power Pool came back and told it that the fee to connect to the grid would actually be $48 million. That’s because connecting all that new power to the grid would require major updates to the transmission infrastructure.

The Oceti Sakowin Power Authority had 15 business days to come up with the extra $45.5 million.

“Needless to say, we couldn’t do it and had to drop out,” Canis told CNBC.

Now, the Oceti Sakowin Power Authority is reevaluating the size and composition of the project and plans to reenter the interconnection queue by the end of the year. That could mean another yearslong wait in line.

These burdens are typical.

In 2020, Pine Gate Renewables had a solar project located in the Piedmont region of North Carolina that it expected to cost $5 million to connect to the electric grid. The local utility in charge of overseeing the interconnection process told Pine Gate it would be more than $30 million. Pine Gate had to terminate the project because it couldn’t afford the new fees, its vice president of regulatory affairs, Brett White, told CNBC.

“We view, as a company, the interconnection problem as the biggest impediment to the industry right now and the costs associated with interconnection are the biggest reason that a project dies on the vine,” White said. “It’s the biggest wild card you have going into the project development cycle.”

There are efforts underway to improve the efficiency of the process, but they’re fundamentally putting a Band-Aid on top of an even deeper problem in the United States: There isn’t enough transmission infrastructure to support the energy transition from fossil fuel sources of energy to clean sources of energy.

“You could make the process for the queue as efficient and pristine as possible and it still could not be all that effective because at some point you’re going to run out of transmission headroom,” Wood Mackenzie analyst Ryan Sweezey told CNBC.

Utility Dive:

  • The total capacity of energy projects in U.S. interconnection queues grew 40% year-over-year in 2022, with more than 1,350 GW of generation and 680 GW of storage waiting for approval to connect, according to a new report from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
  • Queue wait times are increasing as the number of projects getting in line has grown. The typical project completed in 2022 spent five years in queue for interconnection approval compared to three years in 2015 and fewer than two years in 2008, the report said.
  • Queue lengths are expected to grow as the Inflation Reduction Act spurs even greater interest in renewable energy among developers. “Without greatly increasing the pace of transmission expansion, we’re not going to see the results the IRA promised,” said Julia Selker, executive director of the WATT Coalition.

More than 95% of that queued capacity is zero-carbon energy; solar and battery storage represent 80% of the new projects added to the queue in 2022.

At least some of the 2022 increase is likely a result of the Inflation Reduction Act, LBNL energy policy researcher Joe Rand said, but that’s not the whole story because the act passed halfway through the year. He anticipated that even more projects would enter the queue as time goes on and the act continues to spur demand for renewable energy.

But these projects are not exiting the queue at the same rate they’re entering it. Interconnection wait times averaged five years in 2022, up a year from the average of four years for projects built between 2018 and 2022. Completion rates also remain a concern — less than a quarter of the projects that entered the queue between 2000 and 2017 have been built as of the end of 2022, according to the Berkeley Lab data.

Interconnection queue lengths are now widely recognized among developers and other stakeholders as the No. 1 barrier to deploying renewable energy, Rand said. The good news, he said, is that interconnection queues are the focus of multiple regulatory actions, with two open dockets at FERC — one dedicated to transmission planning, and another for procedural reform. New grid-enhancing technologies could also help bring more projects onto the grid, Rand said.

The core problem driving interconnection delays, Selker said is the lack of transmission. But even with reforms, building transmission lines can take years. In the meantime, she said, deploying technologies such as power flow control devices and dynamic line readings could help make room to bring more projects online faster.

According to a case study by The Brattle Group for the WATT Coalition, which advocates for the use of grid-enhancing technologies, upgrading existing transmission lines with the latest technologies could effectively double the capacity of the grid in Kansas and Oklahoma by 2025.

However, Selker said the U.S. lacks sufficient incentives for grid-enhancing technologies, which makes transmission owners unlikely to adopt them.

Even with new incentives and reforms, the U.S. won’t be able to quickly clear out its interconnection queues, Rand said. And the first sign of progress may look like a step backward — the number of projects requesting interconnection is likely to decrease as reforms take effect and developers no longer believe they must apply for multiple prospective projects to increase their odds of success, he said.


4 Responses to “Transmission is Huge, Expensive Hurdle for Clean Energy”

  1. Gingerbaker Says:

    “The “notice to proceed” from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management allows TransWest Express LLC to break ground on its $3 billion line after more than 15 years of development.”

    Anybody else smell a big fat rat? I do. It should not take 15 years to approve a darn transmission line, not should crippling development costs bankrupt the proposals. Big fossil is rolling in the aisles with glee.

    One has to wonder how much faster all this would go if the Department of Energy was tasked with the Nationalization of renewable energy and given broad powers to seize the lands needed using Eminent Domain, and to develop new streamlined procedures for approvals. Why, it would almost be like there was a mandate for our energy future instead of a deliberate bureaucratic morass.

    For Christ’s sake, India and China have been building new transmission lines for a decade.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Rats are extremely possible. Pols and bureaucrats are very bribable.

      Alternatively, the “rat” may be somebody’s calculation of the cumulative delays of all the properties that this trans-mountain-range power line has to cross, and all of the councils and committees and agencies and NIMBYs and lease contracts and jurisdictional infighting and oversight and environmental assessments and California “might possibly be found to cause cancer” stickers along the way.

      Please note that India and China have no trouble rolling over po’ and politically weak folk when they want to start a new project. (Think of the US in the past, where towns were eminently domain flooded with little push back when a dam reservoir was built.)

  2. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Smart grid history (for nerds): A 2013 ARPA-E presentation (PDF) on Grid Power Flow Control and Optimization

    Click to access heidelcmuseminarpresentation09262013.pdf

    The grid’s “copper plate” transition would depend on something like the sample IEEE 39 Bus system depicted on Slide 7 (PDF page 8).

    Electronics Engineering has been the big news for a couple of decades, but serious Electrical Engineering is back, baby! Digital needs our analog power flows.

  3. Gingerbaker Says:

    Oh c’mon – the IEEE 39 Bus system is a joke! Zero plavix rectification on the Encabulator Fragistan armature ?!?

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