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Reports say transmission planning reforms, not major transmission projects, are needed for 90% carbon-free grid

image credit: ID 24808449 © Spbphoto |

Transmission capacity, or lack thereof, has long been considered one of the banes of bringing significant amounts of renewable generation into the U.S. grid.

Two related reports say it shouldn’t be and one details the actions that Congress and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will have to take to make that possible.

“The 2035 Report” shows the U.S. can have carbon-free generation reliably producing 90 percent of its power by 2035 without an increase in electric bills. It was put out by the University of California, Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and GridLab, a consulting firm that provides technical grid expertise to enable a transition to a low-carbon future.

A related report, “Rewiring the U.S. for Economic Recovery,” details the changes that are necessary to make a 90 percent carbon-free grid possible by 2035. It was put out by Energy Innovation: Policy Technology, an energy and environmental policy firm.

“The 2035 Report” says that only modest transmission expenditures and siting battles are needed to get the U.S. to a 90 percent carbon-free grid. The reason, it says, is because low-cost renewable energy and battery storage can be built in all areas of the country and therefore be connected to the grid by spurs that link it to existing high-capacity transmission lines or major load centers.

“Rewiring the U.S. for Economic Recovery” concurs, saying: “We would need some new transmission lines to interconnect new generation, but relatively few interregional lines.”

That would mean fewer of the siting battles that have plagued such major renewable transmission projects as Western Spirit in New Mexico, Grain Belt Express in the Midwest and New England Clean Energy Connect in Maine.

But, the report says, it would require something else: The strengthening of “federal authority to improve regional transmission planning, allocate transmission costs, and reduce unfair interconnection costs.”

That’s necessary because, the report says, “[t]oday’s grid operator and state regulatory approaches to transmission planning and generation interconnection are not up to the task of delivering a low-carbon grid at speed and scale.”

For example, the report says renewable generation developers are seeking interconnection approval for projects with a total capacity of 544 gigawatts, or about half the amount needed to make the grid 90 percent carbon free.

Current interconnection rules, it says, typically require developers to pay separate grid upgrade costs for each project to get it connected to the grid. Instead, it argues, “ … there would be far greater societal benefit to view transmission planning and upgrades with a more holistic regional perspective.”

An example of such a perspective, the report says, can be found in the Mid-Continent Independent Systems Operator’s method for allocating the costs of transmission projects that MISO calls “Multi-Value Projects” or MVPs.

MISO defines MVPs as regional transmission projects that do at least one of three things: reliably and economically enable regional public policy needs; provide multiple types of regional economic value; and/or provide a combination of regional reliability and economic value. It allocates the costs of those projects across its region rather than to specific developers, utilities, states or participants in its markets.

According to the most recent review of it, MISO’s MVP program has produced benefits that are greater than its costs with MVP benefit-to-cost ratios ranging from 2.2 to 3.4. It also is projected to produce net benefits of $12.1 billion to $52.6 billion over the next 20 years and to enable 52.8 million megawatt hours of wind energy through 2031.

Implementing similar allocation programs throughout the country as part of a more comprehensive, proactive transmission planning method could reduce interconnection queue waiting times for renewable projects and lower the risk faced by their developers while benefiting all electricity customers, according to the report.

The report says two actions by Congress and three by FERC could enable the interconnection and transmission planning reforms needed to create a 90 percent carbon-free grid by 2035.

Congress, the report says, should affirm FERC’s authority for allocating transmission costs and planning for public policy impacts to the grid with an emphasis on clean energy goals and reducing the amount of time renewable projects spend in interconnection queues. Congress also should provide states with matching funds to pay for interstate transmission lines with demonstrable reliability, cost and integration benefits.

FERC, according to the paper, should:

  • Exercise its authority to require regional transmission expansion and simplified interconnection rules that support the process of making the grid 90 percent carbon free by 2035;
  • Require regional planning authorities to develop compatible models that incorporate individual states’ energy resource plans and require states denying approval of a regionally beneficial transmission line to demonstrate that their denial meets specified criteria;
  • And require regional transmission planning bodies created under FERC Order 1000 to propose multi-value transmission projects accounting for state and federal clean energy policies to it.

If the actions that the paper recommends need to be taken quickly for the country to have a 90 percent carbon-free grid by 2035, that goal may be hard to reach.

Neither the Trump administration nor Senate Republicans have shown themselves to be champions of carbon-free energy, to say the least, so the likelihood of Congress being able to take the actions recommended by the paper doesn’t seem great.

And the likelihood of FERC actively pursuing the agenda recommended by the paper while it’s chaired by the former energy policy advisor to coal-loving U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., may be even less.

Peter Key's picture

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jun 15, 2020 9:16 pm GMT

Interesting conclusions, Peter. Goes well with this point made by Roger Ballentine in a recent Energy Central interview:

You need all three.  My bias is that probably the least important of those three is technology.  What I mean by that is not that there's not tremendous innovation going on out there, but if I ask what's the challenge today, the challenge today is we're not even fully utilizing the technologies we have to the degree that we could and the degree that we need to.  That is a function of either and probably both policy and business model innovations.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 16, 2020 2:28 pm GMT

"Two related reports say it shouldn’t be and one details the actions that Congress and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will have to take to make that possible."

Peter, beware of non-peer-reviewed, glossy "reports" funded by the MacArthur Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Rockefeller Foundation, and other multi-$billion philanthropic organizations heavily invested in fossil fuels. Both reports are indeed related - in a way that suggests they don't have the best interests of the environment in mind.

"Sadly, it’s not uncommon for foundations to invest in the same companies that contribute to the looming climatic disasters their grants are trying to prevent. But the existence of such an obvious disconnect between principle and practice creates an inescapable contradiction at the heart of MacArthur’s strategies, and undermines the impact of its efforts."

If the MacArthur Foundation wants a low carbon economy, why is it investing in fossil fuels and ignoring grassroots action?

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