Brian McCowan, Zondits staff, 3/9/2023
In a clear sign that power grid issues are becoming a concern to more than just “energy wonks,” CNBC, the widely read internet journal and broadcast network is publishing a multi-part series on problems associated with the grid and the nation’s climate change goals.
The series titled, Transmission Troubles, makes the argument that our power grid is fragmented and outdated, and not ready to adequately serve the transition to renewable energy. Of course, energy consultants and clean energy proponents have been making these arguments for some time now. But it is encouraging to see a mainstream publication take on the issue.
The first segment in what is currently a three-part series is titled: Why America’s outdated energy grid is a climate problem. It focuses on the history of the aging grid and how it’s a bottleneck in the efforts to transition to clean energy sources. The argument is made that the existing electric infrastructure was designed to transport coal, oil, and gas to generating facilities that serve a relatively small geographic region. By contrast, solar, wind, and hydroelectric generation occurs at the source and must be transmitted to where it is to be used. “Different ballgame” one might say.
“Extreme weather events like the Dixie Wildfire, Hurricane Ida, and the 2021 Texas Freeze have made it clear that America’s existing energy infrastructure will not endure the continuing impacts of extreme weather events spurred by climate change,” states the article, quoting a U.S. Department of Energy press release regarding electric grid investments contained in the Infrastructure Law. (https://www.energy.gov/oe/articles/doe-launches-new-initiative-president-bidens-bipartisan-infrastructure-law-modernize)
CNBC interviewed Rob Gramlich, the founder of Grid Strategies, a power sector consulting firm, who contends that the U.S. electric power industry relies on local utilities serving local customers through a patchwork of transmission and distribution networks. With electrification in the form of heat pumps and electric vehicles placing new demands on generation and distribution, a coordinated advanced transmission network is needed to meet that growth.
The second installment, Why it’s so hard to build new electrical transmission lines in the U.S., makes the argument that multiple competing interests make building new transmission lines a process akin to herding cats. And, that if the process is not improved, transmission will continue to be a major roadblock to clean energy development and thereby meeting climate goals.
According to the article, transmission lines have been expanding at only about 1% per year. A Princeton University study claims that the pace must more than double to fulfill the goals of the Inflation Reduction Act.
One potential option is the “reconductoring” of existing transmission lines. This involves replacing the existing conductors with more efficient conductors that can carry more current. There are multiple methods in use and proposed for reconductoring, and Zondits will report on these in an upcoming post.
The effect of this roadblock is illustrated by a Bill Gates blog post, “Right now, over 1,000 gigawatts worth of potential clean energy projects are waiting for approval — about the current size of the entire U.S. grid — and the primary reason for the bottleneck is the lack of transmission.”
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) there are over 3,000 utility companies in the United States. EIA representatives told CNBC that the construction of new transmission lines is a complicated process that requires the utilities, regulators, and landowners to agree where the line will go and how to pay for it, according to their own respective rules and concerns.
Zondits has followed a case in Maine that adds the general public to that stakeholder list. A proposed transmission line to transport hydroelectric power from Quebec through the state to supply the New England power grid has been fought over for years. That battle has led to statewide public referenda and subsequent court battles. A 2021 referendum voted down the completion of the transmission line, but a recent court ruling has revived the project. (https://www.wgbh.org/news/local-news/2022/08/30/maine-court-ruling-revives-transmission-line-to-canada-lending-boost-to-mass-clean-energy-goals)
The situation in Maine is not unique, for transmission lines that cross multiple states, Gramlich told CNBC, “the states look at each other and say: ‘Well, you pay for it. No, you pay for it.’ So, that’s kind of where we get stuck most of the time. The industry grew up as hundreds of utilities serving small geographic areas. The regulatory structure was not set up for lines that cross 10 or more utility service territories. It’s like we have municipal governments trying to fund an interstate highway.”
The third installment in the series, Why a U.S. national electric grid would be great for the climate — and is nearly impossible, aims to offer solutions, but the title makes it clear that optimism is limited. “Because of the history of the electric grid in the US, there is not a functioning system to figure out how to pay for and regulate cross-regional transmission lines,” states the article.
That disfunction creates problems for expanding clean energy that are not easily overcome. Gregory Wetstone, CEO of the non-profit American Council on Renewable Energy, told CNBC, “The system we have for planning and paying for new transmission does not adequately value or promote the vital benefits of interregional transmission. Transmission planning does not sufficiently take into account the benefits of a holistic system over the long term. Lines crossing multiple states have to receive permits from many local and state agencies, and a single county can block the construction of a new transmission line that would benefit the entire region.”
But, it’s not all as pessimistic as the CNBC title would lead us to believe. With the support of funding from the Infrastructure Law, the U.S. Department of Energy is conducting a National Transmission Planning Study on building a coordinated “macrogrid” transmission network.
“After decades of underinvestment, our current grid is ill-equipped to handle the energy transition or increasingly frequent severe weather events. A macrogrid would also allow for the transfer of energy to prevent blackouts and price spikes during extreme weather events,” Wetstone told CNBC
Gramlich sees the politically charged regulatory process as a major hurdle. “Who pays for transmission I think is the biggest problem. It’s a freaking mess,” he told CNBC. The planning process for transmission lines is a lengthy and complicated process. Not the least of those complications are competing environmental interests. The fight over the Maine transmission line for example divided environmental organizations. Some fought the project on the grounds that it would segment old-growth forests, while others endorsed the project, pointing to the decreased reliance on fossil fuels across New England.
“Figuring out how to share costs among the many parties that would benefit from (and be impacted by) new transmission can be contentious, as can navigating permitting processes at the county, state, and federal levels along new routes,” states National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) researcher Patrick Brown.
But Brown is cautiously optimistic about establishing national macro or inter-regional grid, “Existing rights-of-way can be reused; new federal guidelines could encourage proactive interregional planning and coordination and help identify the highest-priority expansion options; and public engagement and community ownership can help get local stakeholders onboard.”
The discussion of developing a grid that can facilitate the growth of clean energy should remind us of President Kennedy’s famous words, “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” He was making the argument for the United States to “go to the moon.” That attitude is likely what is needed today in order to find a path to modernize our transmission networks. We will do it because it is hard and because we must.
Read the full three-part CNBC series: Why America’s outdated energy grid is a climate problem