It’s time for an all-out national mobilization to defeat the climate crisis.

President Biden and Congress must lead the charge to defeat the climate crisis and build a thriving, just and inclusive clean energy future. Join our work to help make it happen.

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It’s time for an all-out national mobilization to defeat the climate crisis.

President Biden and Congress must lead the charge to defeat the climate crisis and build a thriving, just and inclusive clean energy future. Join our work to help make it happen.

No Transmission, No Transition: How FERC Can Unlock the Clean Energy Future with New Power Lines

In our new expert series, Rob Gramlich and Evergreen explain how the Biden administration stands little chance of meeting its ambitious climate targets without transmission reform. FERC must act now.

© 2009 Diliff/Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0

By Evergreen Action and Rob Gramlich (Grid Strategies, Americans for a Clean Energy Grid)

Over 80% of planned clean energy projects in the U.S. could be killed before they are ever built. The reason why? We don’t have enough new power lines.

Without transmission reform, the Biden administration stands little chance of meeting its ambitious target of 100 percent clean power by 2035. Now that climate legislation is stalled again in Congress, ambitious agency actions on issues like transmission are even more critical. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission must act now.

Here’s the Problem

The United States’ failure to build new transmission lines is killing the transition to abundant and cheap clean energy. Over 1,300 gigawatts of wind, solar, and storage are waiting to be built—enough to power up to 84 percent of the entire country and put us on track to achieve President Biden’s target of 100 percent clean power by 2035. 

However, without dramatically expanding our electric grid, the vast majority of those projects will likely never be completed. Even the lucky few have faced costly delays of three and a half years on average to be connected to the grid, based on the complicated, required grid capacity assessments. The largest grid operator in the country, PJM (which includes utilities and customers from New Jersey to Virginia to Illinois), just paused all new power projects—almost all renewable energy—for two years as it sorts through the backlog. This presents a massive problem as the Biden administration seeks to make good on its bold climate goals.

A landmark Princeton study found that the U.S. will likely need to triple its transmission infrastructure to fully decarbonize the grid. Tripling the existing transmission infrastructure would require around 400,000 miles of new lines. Over the past decade, we have built only around 1,800 miles per year. It’s clear that the current system of transmission planning and expansion is woefully inadequate. Urgent action is needed.

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Here’s the Solution 

Thankfully, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has a chance to finally address the problem in an important rulemaking happening right now. FERC, the federal agency responsible for regulating electricity transmission and power markets, released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on transmission planning in April. This draft rule proposes that transmission planners, including utilities and regional transmission operators, begin to plan proactively for the future resource mix—which they have not been doing in most cases. It provides a number of specific proposals on how transmission is planned and paid for and asks the public to comment on them. FERC is accepting official comments on the proposal until August 17.

Historically, transmission was planned separately by the more than 300 utilities around the country, which operated as vertical silos. They usually met local energy demand with local energy generation—meaning there wasn’t much distance from where power was generated to where it was needed. In the future, clean energy grids will rely on geographically diverse sources of supply to smooth out the variability of renewable generation. Furthermore, many of the windiest and sunniest areas of the country (like the Great Plains and the Southwest, respectively) are located far from the population centers that need the most electricity. That will require regional planning institutions and robust, forward-looking planning. The current state of affairs is untenable; we need to get to that future paradigm. 

 

Tell FERC: Get the Grid Ready for Clean Energy

Add your voice now: FERC has requested comments on its transmission proposal before August 17. Enter your information below and we'll send you to an official comment form. 

    By creating federal guidelines on transmission planning, FERC can ensure that grid planners across the country are preparing for the clean energy future. FERC’s central proposal is to require the creation of long-term transmission plans that would reflect the changing energy mix—including the massive amount of clean energy coming online and states’ clean energy targets. FERC would also require more regional coordination on power lines that cross state borders—crucial for the long-distance transmission necessary for renewable energy.

    The draft rule would also tackle the important issue of who pays for expanding our grid. When new clean energy comes online, grid operators usually make those individual clean energy projects pay for transmission upgrades themselves, even though the upgrades benefit all of the end users across the region and the resources that will be connected in the future. It’ is like the next car on the highway having to pay for the whole lane expansion. FERC is proposing that all beneficiaries pay a share based on the benefits they receive, and that states play a key role in deciding that cost allocation. 

    Transmission lines are difficult to site, especially if neighbors are opposed to lines in their backyards. While this particular FERC rulemaking does not tackle siting issues directly, it does provide for a “right-sizing” approach to take advantage of existing rights-of-way without the need for siting new transmission corridors.

    FERC’s transmission rule would go a long way toward scaling up much-needed transmission infrastructure, but several other policies will be important too. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which passed in 2021, provides the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) with some financing tools and gives FERC greater ability to site transmission lines using federal authority (similar to how gas pipelines have been sited for years). In January, DOE also launched the Building a Better Grid Initiative, which will work to streamline transmission permitting, identify high-priority transmission corridors eligible for FERC siting, and distribute around $5 billion in funding for new transmission. 

    FERC and DOE must aggressively use each of these authorities to further streamline and expedite transmission buildout. Without substantial new investment from Congress through reconciliation, including an Investment Tax Credit for transmission, these executive actions are even more important.

    Inadequate transmission infrastructure is likely the biggest bottleneck for clean energy deployment in the U.S.

    Why Transmission Should Matter to Everyone

    Inadequate transmission infrastructure is likely the biggest bottleneck for clean energy deployment in the U.S. By slowing clean energy deployment, lack of transmission also results in the continued operation of dirty power plants that were built too close to fenceline communities, causing asthma and other public health impacts. Building all the wind and solar in the world won’t help us solve climate change unless we can deliver that power to customers and displace dirty energy sources.

    Transmission lines also provide an incredible return on investment and benefits to consumers. Recent lines built in the midwest provided economic benefits of $3 for every $1 invested. That massive economic benefit is in addition to the clear climate benefits. To access these very low cost clean energy resources, we need to pay for the delivery system. With the ongoing electrification of everything from cars to home heating and cooling, new generation and power lines will also be vital for maintaining the reliability of the grid. Increased extreme weather events from climate change—like Winter Storm Uri in Texas—also illustrate the need for urgent investment in transmission.

    The federal government has the perfect opportunity to act now. Clean energy is coming, and it’s up to FERC to make sure the grid is ready.

    Tell FERC: Get the Grid Ready for Clean Energy

    Add your voice now: FERC has requested comments on its transmission proposal before August 17. Enter your information below and we'll send you to an official comment form.