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Clean Energy Investments Hamstrung by Transmission Stagnation

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Henry Craver's picture
Small Business Owner , Self-employed

As a small business owner, I'm always trying to find ways to cut costs and boost the dependability of my services. To that end, I've become increasingly invested in learning about energy saving...

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“The clean energy transition is now hardwired into the US economy,” is the big takeaway from the Business Council for Sustainable Energy’s new factbook, a joint effort with Bloomberg. The statement isn’t the least bit hyperbolic. Renewable energy is now at the center of the power industry and electric vehicle sales shot up 50% last year. Energy storage also had a huge year, jumping for 3.7 gigawatts in 2021 to 4.8 gigawatts in 2022. And all this progress predates the The Inflation Reduction Act, which is expected to accelerate growth across the clean energy sector. 

Indeed, clean energy is on an epic winning streak in the USA. However, we’re still losing the war against climate change. Carbon emissions in 2022 and 2021 were higher than in 2020. Emissions last year were 3% below 2019 levels, but only 13.8% under 2005 levels. This means America is still on a pretty clear path to failing to meet its Paris Agreement obligations of cutting emissions 26-28% by 2025 and 50-52% by 2030, respectively. 

The consequences of our failures are no longer theoretical or far-off. Every year now, Americans pay a hefty price for our warming climate. Last year, for example, climate damages amounted to $165 billion, the third most expensive natural disaster year on record for America. 

The problem isn’t so much investments in clean energy as it is our inability to connect the investments to our grid. Here’s how the problem is summed up in a Canary Media article on the fact book’s key takeaways: 

“Clean-energy projects are struggling to connect to the power grid, with many developers facing yearslong waiting lists and high interconnection costs across many parts of the country. And similarly lengthy timelines and high costs are stymieing the expansion of transmission grids themselves. Federal regulators are in the midst of a wide-ranging review of transmission policies with the aim of reducing these costs and wait times, but any resulting reforms will likely take years to mitigate the current bottlenecks.”

The same article also highlights the difficulties of reforming the policies at fault, pointing to the permitting reform bill that was struck down last year by both Republicans and Democrats. 

The Business Council for Sustainable Energy’s findings are not novel. Utilities and other research committees have come to the same conclusions again and again. CapX2050 Transmission Vision, a 2019 study put together by 10 major upper-midwest utilities, including Xcel and Great River Energy, predicted the need for major transmission upgrades in the region. 

A big problem facing transmission development in the USA is widespread ignorance. Democrats, the group that pushes clean energy conservation in the country, simply don’t realize how important power lines are to cutting emissions. Solar, EV, and conservation are all words that come up at dinner parties in San Francisco. ‘Transmission’ does not, unless it’s related to COVID. 

There is reason for hope, however. Articles about the importance of transmission have become steadily more common in major mainstream publications over the past three years or so. Bill Gates has also started ringing the bell for power line development, in addition to advanced nuclear. Hopefully, the new noise around transmission will lead to consequential regulation changes. I’m not going to hold my breath, though.


 

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