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House Dems' plan to fight climate change proposes big changes to transmission grid

image credit: ID 164233071 © Yilmaz Savas Kandag | Dreamstime.com

Add House Democrats to the groups calling for an overhaul of the nation’s electrical transmission system.

A section of “Solving the Climate Crisis,” a plan for combating climate change that was released by the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis on June 30, says Congress should take actions designed to create a “supergrid” that would enable the large-scale movement of power from regions with lots of sun and wind to population centers.

In addition to providing more of the country with cheap renewable power, the plan says a supergrid would make integrating that power easier because it could span multiple time zones, thereby drawing from a wide-enough area to reduce the problems posed by the variability of renewable generation.

Even though it’s likely to be passed by the House, which is controlled by Democrats, the plan almost surely won’t survive the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans. Still, its recommendations for actions required to build a national transmission infrastructure that could enable a zero-emissions grid are worth reading, especially considering how they dovetail with similar actions being pushed by other groups.

The Committee on the Climate Crisis, which was created after Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 election, released “Solving the Climate Crisis” nearly two weeks after a renewable energy trade group and a public advocacy group focused on modernizing the country’s transmission grid launched an initiative to build support for just such an endeavor.

The American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) and Americans for a Clean Energy Grid (ACEG) on June 17 launched the Macro Grid Initiative, which they said will undertake wide-ranging educational efforts to support expanding the transmission grid to connect areas where renewable power can be produced at low costs to population centers. The groups said that could be done by “connecting grid regions like MISO, PJM and SPP,” which likely means improving the connections between the transmission grids controlled by such independent system operators and regional transmission organizations as the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, PJM Interconnection, and the Southwest Power Pool, as some connections already exist between those grids.

“Solving the Climate Crisis” takes that up a notch. One of its “Building Blocks” in the “Move Toward a National Supergrid” section calls for providing connections that can transport large amounts of power between the three big parts of the grid in the continental U.S. — the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. The plan envisions those connections as being part of a national “High Voltage Direct Current Backbone” that it says, citing the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s “Interconnections Seam Study,” could enable the country to get as much as 80 percent of its power from zero-carbon sources in a way that would save electricity consumers more than $47 billion.

To help get the connections built, the plan says Congress should direct the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to designate the areas where the connections could be located as National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors. The plan also recommends that Congress provide financial support for “priority HVDC transmission lines,” such as the ones that would link the interconnections, possibly by using investment tax credits; direct FERC or a new federal agency to manage the exchange of power between the RTOs, ISOs and independent balancing authorities; and direct FERC to consider whether larger RTOs covering entire interconnections or perhaps the whole country would complement the work of existing RTOs.

“Move Toward a National Supergrid” is one of eight subsections of the “Build a Cleaner and More Resilient Electricity Sector” part of the plan, which is one of six subsections of the first of the plan’s 12 pillars: “Invest in Infrastructure to Build a Just, Equitable, and Resilient Clean Energy Economy.”

“Move Toward a National Supergrid” contains 10 “Building Blocks,” each of which contains one to four recommendations for accomplishing it, as well as the names of the committee or committees in which legislation implementing the recommendations could be originated. Of the 10 “Building Blocks,” eight directly deal with transmission; one, “Maximize Non-Transmission Alternatives and Investments in Storage,” deals with it indirectly; and one, “Expand Tax Credits for Grid-Scale Storage and Invest in Research, Development, and Demonstration,” doesn’t deal with it at all.

In addition to those two “Building Blocks” and the “Building Block” mentioned earlier — “Create a High-Voltage Direct Current Backbone to Support a National Supergrid” — the other “Building Blocks” in the “Move Toward a National Supergrid” are “Modernize the National Interest Electric Corridors Program;” “Provide Funding to Help State and Local Governments Site Interstate Electric Transmission Lines;” “Establish a National Policy on Transmission;” “Resolve Clean Energy Interconnection Backlogs;” “Establish Incentives to Increase Electric Transmission Capacity and Efficiency;” “Improve Planning and Cost Allocation for Transmission Lines;” and “Develop a National Offshore Wind Transmission Plan.”

The broadest, “Establish a National Policy on Transmission,” says Congress should establish such a policy because current law doesn’t direct federal and state officials reviewing proposed interstate transmission projects to assess them within the context of such national priorities as fighting climate change. A national transmission policy, it says, would let courts and state and local officials know that expanding the country’s transmission infrastructure to decarbonize the grid is in the public interest.

“Develop a National Offshore Wind Transmission Plan” recommends that FERC develop such a plan based on an analysis by the Department of Energy that Congress would fund to identify the requirements for connecting 50 gigawatts of offshore wind generation to the onshore transmission grid. It also recommends that Congress direct FERC to conduct a rulemaking to reduce barriers to connecting offshore wind farms to the grid, as well as to develop a method of allocating the costs of offshore wind transmission facilities.

Directing FERC to develop both an offshore wind transmission plan and National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors where HVDC links between the nation’s interconnections could be located ties in with the first “Building Block” towards a national supergrid — “Modernize the National Interest Electric Corridors Program.”

In that "Building Block," the plan says that, in order to fight climate change, the country needs to ramp up renewable generation by building HVDC transmission lines that traverse multiple states but doing so under current legal and regulatory systems is very difficult, as the experience of Clean Line Energy Partners showed.

A big problem, according to the plan, has been the failure of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to work as intended. The plan says the law directed DOE to periodically designate National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors in which FERC, under narrow conditions, could authorize transmission line construction and the exercise of eminent domain. That, however, split authority for transmission line siting between DOE and FERC; got the process backwards by having DOE designate the corridors before transmission lines were proposed in them, rather than having DOE locate the corridors around proposed transmission lines; and didn’t require DOE to consider where transmission capacity needs to be built to reduce the electric power sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. On top of those things, court decisions left DOE’s authority to designate the corridors in limbo.

To fix all that, the plan recommends that Congress amend the Federal Power Act so that the National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors program’s goals are to help achieve national climate goals and so that FERC, rather than DOE, designates National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors and does so based on applications from developers of proposed transmission projects.

The plan also recommends that Congress direct FERC to work with DOE and DOE’s National Laboratories to develop an electric infrastructure strategy that would achieve 100 percent clean power generation by 2040 and that part of the strategy should be identifying existing rights of way, such as railroad lines and interstates, that can be used for transmission infrastructure.

Peter Key's picture

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Discussions

Ben Ettlinger's picture
Ben Ettlinger on Jul 9, 2020 2:49 pm GMT

With the steady growth of DERs, solar and wind farms all over the country, and off shore, is a super grid really necessary? The technology is advancing so quickly, would it not better better to groom the grid for more localized transmission and distribution than creating a  supergrid and with it a super ISO to control it. It's refelective of the politics itself. One side wants everything big and centralized and the other distributed. The question is whats really practically best, not philosophically best?

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 9, 2020 4:03 pm GMT

Are they mutually exclusive goals? Obviously there are only so many funds to go around so that might be the most limiting factor, but is it possible to have both? A 'super grid' that also recognizes and provides value to the local generation and perhaps is more easily able to balance out the excess generation in one region with the needs in another (particularly as weather-dependent sources grow in prominence)?

Peter Key's picture
Peter Key on Jul 9, 2020 7:49 pm GMT

They aren't mutually exclusive goals, but without the law and rule changes mentioned in "Solving the Climate Crisis," any attempt to build a supergrid would get bogged down in litigation. According to "The 2035 Report," which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago in this post, only modest transmission expenditures and siting battles are needed to get the U.S. to a 90 percent carbon-free grid by 2035. That, the report says, is because low-cost renewable energy and battery storage can be built in all areas of the country and connected to the grid by spurs that link it to existing high-capacity transmission lines or major load centers. In other words, there's no need to turn the Great Plains and Southwest into giant wind and solar farms and build mega-transmission lines from them to load centers. Building low-cost renewable generation and storage all over the place and linking it to nearby transmission lines or cities works just as well.

Ben Ettlinger's picture
Ben Ettlinger on Jul 10, 2020 4:48 pm GMT

Yes, like "Hub and spoke" or in this case "spoke and hub". That has much more chance of succeding. The ISO's would have to step up to manage, monitor, etc.

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