How Can We Construct Transmission Infrastructure Responsibly?
The IIJA and IRA offer a likelihood to hurry up electricity-transmission development, but can or not it’s done fairly?
That is the second of a series of posts previewing the Emmett Institute’s 2023 Symposium, coming up on April 12. Take a look at the primary post, introducing a number of the big questions across the IIJA and IRA, and RSVP for the Symposium here!
The clean-energy transition that’s one focus of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) would require big changes in our electric grid. On the demand side, switching our buildings, industries, and vehicles to electric power could double our electricity usage. On the generation side, replacing coal- and gas-fired power plants with renewables will change the situation and the character of our power supply; solar, wind, and battery-storage projects are already delayed as they wait for access to the facility grid. And because the amount of power generated by wind and solar fluctuates greater than typical fossil-fuel generation, the grid must be able to shift power from one area to a different.
To attach all that latest supply to latest demand, we’d like to upgrade our transmission system. Within the energy world, “transmission” specifically refers back to the high-voltage wires that move power from generating stations (like an influence plant, solar array, or wind farm) to local distribution systems (the usual wires-on-poles setup that you simply see along most surface roads). Transmission lines allow us to make use of electricity from far-away generators with only a small loss in power, enabling vast regions of North America to share a single grid.
But way more transmission lines must be built, or upgraded, to realize the goals of the IIJA and IRA. Modeling from Evolved Energy Research (where our panelist Jeremy Hargreaves is a principal) and Princeton University shows that reaching the IRA’s full potential for greenhouse-gas reductions would require transmission capability to grow at a rate of about 2.3% per yr—double last decade’s growth rate. (“Transmission capability” is measured within the length of a transmission line times the quantity of power it will possibly carry.) Similarly, the National Academies recommend that the U.S. increase its transmission capability by about 40% by 2030 with a purpose to achieve carbon-neutrality by mid-century.
The ways wherein the IIJA and IRA address the necessity for brand new transmission capability can be the topic of the second panel in our symposium, Transmission Case Study: Remaking our Power Grid for Renewable Energy.
An enormous a part of the issue with electricity transmission is that the lines must go somewhere. The high-voltage wires should be well insulated, kept cool, and set at a secure distance from any people or obstacles. This will likely be done by mounting wires overhead or burying the lines in specialized underground installations. And to do this, transmission products must each get access to the land—by purchase or eminent domain—and get the mandatory permits from state, and sometimes local, governments.
Property and permits might be hard to come back by, for lots of the same reasons that renewable-generation projects face. Overhead lines typically require removing trees and vegetation all along the corridor, potentially causing harm to local ecosystems. Also they are highly visible, which might damage the aesthetics of any area and should cause economic harms to areas depending on tourism or recreation. Underground lines, besides being expensive and difficult to take care of, also require substantially more disturbance to the land and nearby people or businesses.
One other key issue is that the people impacted by transmission projects are sometimes not the those that ask for them. To take one distinguished example, Massachusetts has been trying for years to get a transmission line built that might directly connect it to hydropower from Hydro-Québec, in Canada, to assist satisfy the state’s renewable-energy goals. Probably the most convenient routes for that line would require a considerable amount of latest construction in Latest Hampshire or Maine (Vermont was considered but rejected as too expensive). Hydro-Québec stands to achieve customers, and the state of Massachusetts would have the opportunity to fulfill its renewable energy goals, but the advantages to the state where the brand new transmission could be built—and specifically to the individuals who live, work, or play near the proposed construction sites—haven’t been enough to win support. (The Maine version of the transmission project should undergo: even though it was rejected by a state referendum, the state’s supreme court has ruled that the referendum could also be unconstitutional, depending on facts that can be developed at trial.)
Because of this, transmission development is a vital consideration for large-scale renewables planning. Major clean-energy projects—reminiscent of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan or potential offshore-wind developments that our panelist Karen Douglas worked on as California Energy Commissioner—should be designed around existing transmission infrastructure or discover a approach to rigorously and responsibly construct out latest lines in ways in which minimize local harms and may win stakeholder support.
The IIJA and IRA each take steps to scale back barriers to latest siting—though not necessarily the controversies that include them. The most important change comes from the IIJA, which has two major elements as regards transmission: First, the law created the “Transmission Facilitation Program,” which allows the Department of Energy (DOE) to change into rather more involved in promoting large transmission projects—including by promising to buy as much as half of the project’s capability, for as much as 40 years. That is paired with a $2.5 billion fund for the DOE to support such projects.
Second, and maybe more controversially, the IIJA amended provisions within the Federal Power Act coping with the “backstop” authority of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the DOE. This power originated within the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which gave DOE authority to designate “National Interest Electric Corridors” (NIETCs), if, based on a “Congestion Study” released once every three years, it found that a region’s lack of transmission capability was already constraining economic growth. Inside those NIETCs, the law allowed FERC to issue federal permits for transmission, instead of state permits, if a state permit application had not been approved inside one yr of filing.
But two appellate-court decisions strictly limited this authority: A 2009 Fourth Circuit decision, Piedmont Environmental Council v. FERC, found that FERC couldn’t issue a “backstop” permit for an application that the state had denied, only an application that had been neither approved nor rejected for a minimum of a yr. Two years later, in California Wilderness Coalition v. DOE, the Ninth Circuit struck down the one two NIETC designations that DOE has ever made and established stringent requirements for future designations.
The IIJA essentially reverses the Piedmont decision and reinforces DOE’s authority. DOE can now create a NIETC based on predicted future transmission needs, and may take third-party studies under consideration. And FERC can now issue transmission permits in a NIETC even when a state has denied the permit (in certain cases). This creates the potential for project proponents, after having their permit denied on the state level, to go to DOE and FERC themselves to override the state decision—a path which DOE seems prone to take.
The IRA doesn’t revolutionize electricity transmission to the identical extent, but does use its funding to encourage latest development. Most directly, the IRA builds on NIETCS by providing $2 billion in funding for transmission projects in those areas. It also offers $0.76 billion for states and Tribes to make use of to facilitate their review of proposed transmission projects, as long as they make a choice on those projects in two years or less. This provides something of a carrot to states, to pair with the stick of DOE and FERC’s expanded “backstop” authority.
The IRA also provides $9.7 billion for rural electric cooperatives to develop clean-energy resources. Rural electric cooperatives are nonprofit electric utilities owned by their customers, moderately than investors or governments, and while small when it comes to total power supplied, are the dominant utility type for rural areas. They’ve been slower to divest from coal power, partially because they’ve a big debt load, often secured by their coal-fired plants, and partially because, as nonprofits, they can not profit from traditional renewable-energy tax credits (though the IRA’s “direct pay” tax credits avoid this problem). While the nearly $10 billion is meant to fund quite a lot of clean-energy projects, a great portion of that may perhaps go to the transmission projects mandatory to attach rural cooperatives to renewable generation.
The huge buildout of recent transmission mandatory to decarbonize our economy can be difficult. Continuing the established order will make it hard to get renewable energy from where the sun, wind, and water are to where the persons are, extending the usage of coal, gas, and oil. Forcing transmission projects through, because the IIJA makes possible, might not be fair and can almost actually create resentment for climate policy generally. Even now—as our panelist Jennifer Chen has written—DOE and FERC are attempting to develop an equitable and effective technique of wielding the powers and funding that the climate laws have given them, but that stands out as the hardest path of all.