America needs more interregional electric lines

Sheldon Whitehouse and Mike Quigley have a plan to get it done

For a cleaner and more sustainable future, we need to convert home heating and passenger travel to electricity and then we need to power the electrical grid with zero-carbon fuels. That means we’re going to need more electrical transmission lines, and in particular, the characteristics of wind, solar, and geothermal power suggest we’re going to need more long-range transmission lines.

That’s in part just a question of money, but it’s also a question of permitting.

To build electrical transmission lines you need regulatory approval from a state body, and you generally also need to do some eminent domain takings which you are empowered to do thanks to the approval process. And so, one problem with long-range transmission is it requires coordination across multiple different state agencies, which is challenging. The states also tend to under-approve interstate projects because the benefits are diffuse.

A solution exists for the wonderful world of natural gas and it’s called the federal government. If you want to get a gas pipeline route approved, you go to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and get it done there. The FERC process is also pretty unfair to landowners who sometimes barely even get courtesy notification of what’s going on, though sloppy handling of landowner rights does also generate plenty of litigation.

Way back in 2005, Congress and the Bush administration took a stab at addressing this with a provision that said the Energy Department could designate national interest corridors and then step in with approvals if state regulators were delaying approval. But courts ruled in subsequent years that simply denying permits is not delaying them, so the federal government can’t step in to rescue projects that states won’t approve. So we’ve now been stuck for years. But Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Mike Quigley have a new proposal that they are hoping to get incorporated into one of the legislative vehicles moving through Congress.

This is very nerdy stuff, but if you know anything about big construction projects in America, you know that permitting is as important (if not more so) than money, so let’s dive in.

Clean energy needs interregional connection

Robust interregional electrical connections have long been desirable from an economic point of view (which is why a Bush-era energy bill tried to facilitate them) just because it’s always the case that there are idiosyncratic surges in power demand and idiosyncratic shortages in output, and it’s better to be able to balance them.

But this is especially important for zero-carbon electricity for two reasons.

One is that the places where our zero-carbon resources lie are not necessarily where we have the most people and, thus, electricity users. Here’s a map of geothermal resources (top left), solar resources (top right), wind resources (bottom left), and population density (top right).

A few glaring mismatches jump out. One is that the Midwestern population centers aren’t really near any of these resources while our best onshore wind terrain is in a part of the country where essentially nobody lives. The other is that the super-dense Northeast Corridor is really only good for offshore wind. Last, while there is some solar and geothermal near population centers, there’s also a lot that’s in unpopulated mountain or desert areas.

Obviously with fossil fuels, you also have this problem.

Two hundred years ago, England was building cities near coal mines to power the Industrial Revolution. But for a long time now, we haven’t needed to co-locate population centers with fossil fuel resources because we simply ship the fossil fuels. Trains full of coal, tankers full of oil, and pipelines full of natural gas are what make the fossil fuel economy work. With these cleaner sources of fuel, we just need to move the energy via transmission lines instead.

But interconnection is particularly important for renewables because of intermittency. The wind isn’t always blowing and the sun isn’t always shining. You can address this to an extent with storage, but storage is expensive. So you want to address a chunk of it with balancing. If you have lots of wind turbines and lots of solar panels in lots of different places, then odds are good that you’ll always be generating a lot of electricity somewhere or other. But for that to work, the electricity needs to be able to move around robustly.

Again, this is not that different from how fossil fuels work. Bad weather can impair ships and problems can disrupt pipelines or trains. But we have a robust system for transporting fossil fuels such that we can re-route things or work around temporary delays. But a whole new energy system needs a whole new transportation system, and in particular, a low-carbon system relies much more on transporting the electricity itself, so we need to deliver on what the 2005 bill didn’t actually achieve and make it easier to get the permits.

The SITE Act

If it were up to me, I think I might achieve true parity with natural gas and just put FERC in charge of everything. But instead, out of deference to the dozens of existing utility regulators who don’t want to lose their authority over all kinds of local projects, the Whitehouse/Quigley proposal — the SITE Act — creates a new class of significant interstate projects that will be addressed by FERC.

Unlike the 2005 law, it’s not a federal backstop to address state regulatory failures — it’s just preemption of state authority for these significant projects.

Because the people behind this are clean energy enthusiasts, they’re also familiar with the process of objecting to natural gas projects from a landowners’ rights point of view. So the law tries to give landowners a fairer shake than they get from the gas process with more prompt and rigorous notification. But they also want to move to a speedy resolution of disputes. Instead of a multi-layered hearing process, the idea is to let landowners get their day in court fast, and if they have a valid objection they’ll win, and if they don’t the project can go ahead.

This is all a little bit tedious — we’re talking about legislation to change who has the authority to issue which permits — but it’s a huge deal quantitatively.

Climate hawks like to say that we have the technology we need to support a 100% zero-carbon electrical system. That’s basically true, but the cost of creating such a system hinges critically on our ability to dispatch power from place to place. Patrick Brown and Auden Botterud modeled this in a January paper with the thrilling title “The Value of Inter-Regional Coordination and Transmission in Decarbonizing the US Electricity System.” They found that creating robust interregional interconnections would reduce the cost of an all-renewables power system from $135/MWh to $73/MWh.

In other words, we’re talking about reducing the cost of a clean energy system by over 40% just based on boring grid permitting issues.

Climate is a million small things

Some big issues are also simple: Equal rights to marry or not.

Simple issues are good for activist sloganeering, good for politicians working with minimum staff resources, and good for journalists who really just want to name some heroes and villains and do a sharp take. Climate, unfortunately, is not just a big deal but a genuinely sprawling, expansive issue that touches on all kinds of things and in which lots of annoying details matter.

  • Public utility commissions don’t want to give up their longstanding regulatory authority.

  • But fragmenting authority over permitting for electrical transmission lines makes them hard to build.

  • Lack of interregional electrical interconnection is bad in general, but it specifically hampers solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal energy relative to fossil fuels.

The good news is that while fixing this will obviously draw opposition (from the PUCs, from fossil fuel companies who like being advantaged, etc.), it doesn’t necessarily need to be a political fight to the death. We are talking about making energy cheaper for consumers here, not more expensive, and there’s no subsidy that needs to be offset anywhere. Conservative elected officials in a low-population, wind-rich state like Wyoming can want to sign on to a change that will make it much easier for them to sell their electricity without needing to buy into any larger political constructions about climate change.

But blue states can move more aggressively to implement their clean electricity standards if they can buy renewable power more cheaply from other regions and count on balancing. Boring permitting issues are key! Indeed, there is a whole parallel boring permitting issue about trying to get drilling for zero-carbon geothermal power on federal lands — the same permitting process that oil and gas drillers currently enjoy. In both the case of gas vs. geothermal on federal lands and interstate pipelines vs. interstate transmission lines, the regulatory system is geared toward fossil fuels, and the clean energy future needs a different approach.

I don’t think we’re ever going to get the big “climate bill” that advocates are hoping for. But because climate touches everything, nearly every legislative vehicle is an opportunity to find a coalition to advance some climate-related priorities, some of which — like this transmission permitting thing, hopefully — can get buy-in from beyond climate circles.