Transmission is Energy Transition Chokepoint

May 4, 2023

There is no Universe where we get the energy transition we need without addressing the grid in a huge way.

New York Times Editorial Board:

To tap the potential of renewable energy, the United States needs to dramatically expand the electric grid between places with abundant wind and sunshine and places where people live and work. And it needs to happen fast. The government and the private sector are investing heavily in a historic shift to electric-powered vehicles, heating systems and factories, including hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending approved last year as part of the Inflation Reduction Act. But without new power lines, much of that electricity will continue to be generated by burning carbon. Unless the United States rapidly accelerates the construction of power lines, researchers at Princeton University estimate that 80 percent of the potential environmental benefits of electrification will be squandered.

The United States needs 47,300 gigawatt-miles of new power lines by 2035, which would expand the current grid by 57 percent, the Energy Department reported in February. A 2021 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine arrived at a similar figure. To hit that target, the United States needs to double the pace of power line construction.

The current power grid was constructed over more than a century. Building what amounts to a new power grid on a similar scale in a small fraction of that time is a daunting challenge. It will require tens of billions of dollars in financing, vast quantities of steel and aluminum and thousands of specialized workers. But building is the easy part. What makes the target virtually impossible to hit is the byzantine approval process that typically includes separate reviews by every municipality and state through which a power line will pass, as well as a host of federal agencies.

In 2005, for instance, the largest power company in Arizona proposed to build a transmission line to carry electricity to its customers from a new wind farm in Wyoming. Last month, after 18 years of legal battles and hearings and revisions, the TransWest Express project was finally approved. It still won’t be completed until 2028 at the earliest, though.

The most important change necessary to overhaul the permitting process is to put a single federal agency in charge of major transmission projects. Congress has empowered the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve major natural gas pipelines, which helped to expedite construction during the fracking boom. It ought to be at least as easy to build renewable energy projects.

To achieve that goal, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, and Representative Mike Quigley, Democrat of Illinois, have proposed legislation that would endow the F.E.R.C. with the power to approve the routes of major electric transmission lines that pass through multiple states, replicating the power the agency already has over pipelines. Streamlining regulation to accelerate renewable energy development is a plan that both parties can embrace.

This federal pre-emption of state and local authorities would only apply to major projects of national importance, like the Grain Belt Express, a proposed power line stretching from Kansas to Indiana that has been pursuing state approvals for more than a decade, or the SunZia project between New Mexico and Arizona, which has been on the drawing board since 2006. Under the proposed legislation, state and local governments still would retain oversight of the small projects that make up more than 90 percent of all transmission projects.

The current approval process — or more accurately, the current jumble of approval processes — is a mess created by decades of well-intentioned efforts to prevent corporations from running roughshod over the interests of individuals, communities and the environment. Safeguarding those interests is important, but granting a veto to every community through which power lines may pass comes at the expense of other communities, and it causes other kinds of environmental damage.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance:

Americans are finding themselves in the dark more often these days, as increasingly severe weather events knock out power grids across the country. Undergrounding, decentralization, and interconnection can go a long way toward decreasing the frequency and duration of these outages and the financial toll they take.

In 2022 alone, there were 18 climate–related disasters that caused at least $1 billion in damages. These events occurred throughout the entire year and impacted every region of the US, compelling power providers across the country – from the California Independent System Operator to the Florida Power and Light Company, from PJM Interconnection to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas – to act.

The impact on customers is extreme. On average, power companies can respond to outages and get the lights back on in roughly two hours. During major events, the average duration of an outage increases two– to threefold. Power outage durations are now at an all–time high.

At the same time, the need for a stable supply of electricity is also increasing, as homes and businesses electrify more of their operations and appliances.

All eyes have thus turned to power providers, upon whom consumers are relying on to deliver greater grid resilience. While there are many ways to build a resilient power system, three specific and scalable approaches can make a real impact.

Undergrounding – the practice of burying power lines rather than stringing them above ground – is among the most common forms of ‘grid hardening’ practiced today. Above–ground power lines are vulnerable to high winds and flying debris, which can snap both wires and poles. Buried power lines, by contrast, are tucked safely underground, far away from the menacing weather.

The cost of undergrounding is considerable, but so is the benefit. When Hurricane Ian – the fifth–strongest storm ever to hit the US and one of the costliest natural disasters in the country’s history – swept through the US Southeast in September 2022, Florida Power and Light found that neighborhoods with underground lines fared significantly better than those with lines above ground.

States across the country are now adopting this practice to help stave off outages from a variety of disasters, including wildfires (California), lightning (Illinois) and ice storms (New York). In 2022, utilities spent a combined $8 billion on undergrounding distribution power lines. Four states saw over half a billion dollars of spend each, while California saw a remarkable $1.2 billion directed toward undergrounding efforts.

Sometimes an outage in the main utility power grid is unavoidable – but that doesn’t mean customers have to be left out in the dark. Decentralization allows power from a variety of sources, including customer–generated power, to kick in when the main grid conks out.

For instance, during a heat wave that scorched the Western US in September 2022, California’s utilities drew on consumer resources, such as rooftop solar and residential energy storage, to lessen demand on the main grid and avert a blackout.

When it comes to consumer–generated power, California is exceptionally well positioned. In 2022, California accounted for 17GW – or 31% – of the country’s ‘behind–the–meter’ assets, a volume that BNEF expects to rise to 44GW by 2030. As these resources come online, they will further buffer the grid against overdemand and strain.


7 Responses to “Transmission is Energy Transition Chokepoint”

  1. garyhorvitz Says:

    The Republican response to permitting reform: This summary is provided by the CRS (Congressional Research Service). Better sit down:

    “This bill provides for the exploration, development, importation, and exportation of energy resources (e.g., oil, gas, and minerals). For example, it sets forth provisions to (1) expedite energy projects, (2) eliminate or reduce certain fees related to the development of federal energy resources, and (3) eliminate certain funds that provide incentives to decrease emissions of greenhouse gases.

    The bill expedites the development, importation, and exportation of energy resources, including by waiving environmental review requirements and other specified requirements under certain environmental laws, eliminating certain restrictions on the import and export of oil and natural gas, prohibiting the President from declaring a moratorium on the use of hydraulic fracturing (a type of process used to extract underground energy resources), directing the Department of the Interior to conduct sales for the leasing of oil and gas resources on federal lands and waters as specified by the bill, and limiting the authority of the President and executive agencies to restrict or delay the development of energy on federal land.

    In addition, the bill reduces royalties for oil and gas development on federal land and eliminates charges on methane emissions.

    It also eliminates a variety of funds, such as funds for energy efficiency improvements in buildings as well as the greenhouse gas reduction fund.”

    Apparently renewable energy does. not. exist.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      It’s likely the Dem-controlled Senate will shoot this down, if Manchin is more beholden to coal than oil&gas. GOP Congresscritters can get their bribe money for their quid pro quo, and FF companies will continue to seek other ways to kill our ecosystem.

      • garyhorvitz Says:

        Biden would veto anyway. But the issue remains. We don’t get the grid we need without permitting reform.

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          Yeah, well, between the state gerrymandering of legislative districts and the Electoral College, it’s an uphill fight to restore democracy, sensible policy and human rights. Currently I think our best chance is that the GOP implodes from its own derangement.

  2. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is a gem. He’s smart, organized, well-spoken, sensible and sane.

    Here’s a recent tour de force on the subject of SCOTUS ethics.

  3. Nuclear’s only chokepoint is the hysterical environmentalist regulatory complex.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      We’ll get to see how nuclear power plants do in China and other Asian nations run by fiat governments, and whether they’re free of the construction flaws and corruption that Western democracies have with their regulated NPPs.

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