Kamala Harris and Hope for Transmission Development
- Jan 20, 2023 9:13 am GMT
Scrolling through my news feed this morning, I came across this Yahoo! article about Vice President Kamala Harris celebrating a new Arizona-California transmission line on her trip to Arizona. The Ten West Link will span 125 miles and connect substations near Phoenix to ones just over the California border. The idea is that this power corridor will allow future Arizona solar farms to export electricity to California.
In the grand scheme of American power, the Ten West Link isn’t a huge deal. What makes this story notable, however, is the Vice President’s promotion of the project. From the time Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” documentary came out in 2006 until now, activists, journalists and left of center politicians have stressed the need for a clean energy revolution. Until very recently, however, almost none of the same renewable pushers made a peep about the power infrastructure that would make such an energy transition possible. People in the power industry knew, but expert knowledge alone wasn’t enough to move the needle.
The public’s and policy community’s ignorance about transmission’s importance has had serious consequences. Let this stat from a 2021 Atlantic article sink in: “Since 2009, China has built more than 18,000 miles of ultrahigh-voltage transmission lines. The U.S. has built zero.”
That nation’s transmission stagnation has played a big part in electricity price increases, declining dependability, and sluggish renewable adoption.
As I’ve mentioned before on this forum, inefficient regulation is one of the biggest hindrances to transmission projects today. A 2018 report by the nonprofit Americans for a Clean Energy Grid identified 22 shovel-ready projects that had been in existence for a decade or more. To get such projects off the ground, the report’s authors suggested streamlining project siting and permitting, passing a tax credit for transmission projects, and direct investment by the federal government.
However, it seems there is reason for optimism. Beyond the VP’s recent Arizona appearance, politicians across the country have been making more noise about the importance of transmission development. Senator Norm Needlman of Connecticut, for example, has made pointed comments about New Hampshire and Maine blocking various transmission projects between Canada and New England that would transport hydro energy into the region:
“I beseech the people of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, where we — with adequate transmission lines coming through their states — could access way more power generation from Hydro-Québec.”
The current administration, too, has prioritized transmission. The climate bill enacted last year includes $3 billion for power lines and, under the administration’s guidance, agencies like FERC are working to accelerate sitting times for such projects. The lines, after all, are a must if Biden’s plan to slash emissions in half by 2030 is to stand a chance.
It seems the cat is finally out of the bag when it comes to our collective understanding of transmission’s importance. Our new found knowledge combined with the acceleration of electricity prices (consumers paid 14.3% more for electricity last year on average than in 2021) and extreme weather events will hopefully lead to urgency on a national transmission overhaul.
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