The $1 trillion infrastructure bill is a small step toward the US network we need | World Weekly
Any effective plan to tackle climate change relies on a basic technology: long wires strung through tall towers.
The United States needs to add hundreds of thousands of miles of transmission lines in the coming decades to weave fragmented regional energy systems together into an interconnected network capable of supporting a massive influx of renewables.
A nationwide network of short catalyst lines, long wires, and high voltages will deliver wind, solar, and hydropower to where it is needed when it is available across the country. It can help provide reliable backup power when heat waves or winter storms cause regional power shortages, keeping pace with growing demands as homes and businesses increasingly rely on electricity to power their cars, heating systems, and more.
It’s a great vision with some serious flaws. For starters, it will be very expensive. A Princeton-led study found that it would take an additional $350 billion for the United States to develop just the transportation capacity needed in the next nine years. That’s under a scenario in which wind and solar will provide half of the country’s electricity by 2030, putting the nation on the right track to reduce emissions by mid-century.
Even if the government and businesses release the necessary funds, there is an even more daunting challenge ahead: States, counties, cities and towns across the country will need to quickly sign off on many new transmission lines. And the United States became terrible at allowing such multi-state projects.
A series of efforts to provide cheap, clean hydro power from Canada, winds from the Great Plains, and a blend of renewables from the Southwest, has been mired in legal battles for years, or has been rejected, often over the refusal of one region to have wires cut through its land. Even large network projects being built can take a decade to work through the approvals process.
Some help might finally be on the way. The nearly $1 trillion infrastructure package moving forward in the Senate, which has bipartisan support, is saving billions of dollars for transmission lines. It also includes some provisions that may be more important than money, by strengthening and clarifying the federal authority over project approvals.
However, the package represents only a small down payment on investments and allows for the required changes.
The United States does not have a single network. It has three faulty and disconnected systems, built largely in the middle of the last century, with limited capabilities to swap electricity across larger states and regions.
Isolated grids mean that electricity from oscillating sources such as solar and wind can only be charged so far, wasting a portion of production and driving down prices when generation exceeds regional demand during particularly windy and sunny periods (which is happening more and more like those Sources constitute a larger share of the electricity supply). For example, California cannot send its surplus solar energy to Midwestern cities during the middle of a summer’s day, or rely on steady wind power from Oklahoma, for example, when the sun begins to dip on the West Coast.
But integrated grid operators can take advantage of the lowest-cost electricity available across a much larger area and deliver it to remote places with high demand, notes Doug Arendt, executive director at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Long-range, high-voltage transmission lines also allow for more solar, wind, hydro and geothermal plants to be developed in areas blessed with weather, geology, or waterways to supply them. That’s because developers will be able to count on larger customer bases in cities that could be a time zone or two.
A recent presentation by Lawrence Berkeley Lab indicated that there are more than 750 gigawatts of power generation proposals queued across five regions in the United States, pending transmission connections that could provide electricity to customers. The vast majority of them are solar and wind projects. (For comparison, the entire US fleet of large plants can generate just over 1,100 gigawatts.)
Other countries are progressing in this field. China has emerged as the world’s clear leader in high-voltage transportation, building tens of thousands of miles of these lines to connect its power plants to cities across the vast country. But while China developed 260 gigawatts of transmission capacity between 2014 and 2021, North America only added seven, according to a survey by Iowa State University.
“The United States is lagging behind, yet it has every reason to catch up,” James McCalley, professor of power systems engineering at Iowa State University and one of the authors of the National Grid study published late last year, said in a statement.
Just a fraction of what is needed
So how can the United States begin to fill this gap?
First, you will need more money. While the Biden administration has boasted that the infrastructure package provides $73 billion for “clean energy transportation,” that money is distributed across a wide range of efforts, including research and development as well as demonstration projects in areas such as carbon capture and clean hydrogen.
The current version of the infrastructure package sets aside about $10 to $12 billion just to build transmission towers and wires, notes Rob Gramlish, president of energy consultancy Grid Strategies.
That’s a fraction of the amount the Princeton study found the United States will need to employ in the next nine years. While federal spending is designed to unlock private capital, the United States will still need to invest tens of billions more to reach the metrics needed this decade, says Jesse Jenkins, Princeton study co-author and associate professor at the university.
The bill also provides for a $2.5 billion revolving loan program for the projects, effectively making the Department of Energy the number one customer for the new transmission lines. This federal funding can help get relocation projects that are time-consuming but necessary before the developer lines up for clients. Observers say that could ease the perennial chicken-and-egg problem between building more electricity generation and constructing the lines needed to transmit it.
Ultimately, the federal government can sell those rights to clean up power stations that need access to the lines as soon as they come online.
It’s a promising policy tool that “just needs another zero in the budget line,” says Jenkins.
Although there is little money, the proposed infrastructure bill addresses approval issues.
A long-term challenge in many parts of the United States is that electricity generation capacity and energy demand are growing faster than transmission systems. Individuals and businesses want cheap, reliable electricity, but few embrace the necessary towers and wires—particularly if they seem to provide electricity and economic benefits mostly to remote areas. There is often aesthetic, environmental, social and commercial criticism as well.
Lindsey Walter, deputy director of the climate and energy program at Third Way, a center-left think tank in Washington, D.C., said in an email.
The Energy Act of 2005 sought to address these tensions, giving the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) the ability to step in and sign off on projects that could ease transmission restrictions in certain designated national electricity transmission corridors. But so far, the Department of Energy has identified only two such regions, in the Central Atlantic and Southern California.
In addition, the Federal Court of Appeals eventually limited the power of the FERC, finding that it only had the right to sign projects if states or other jurisdictions held an application for more than a year. The court ruled that it did not have the power to overturn a state’s refusal of requests under the law.