Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

Chart: US clean energy backlog balloons to unprecedented 2 terawatts

The huge figure shows that developers are ready to build renewables, but it also underscores a key problem: The country doesn’t have enough transmission capacity.
By Eric Wesoff, Maria Virginia Olano

  • Link copied to clipboard

Canary Media’s chart of the week translates crucial data about the clean energy transition into a visual format.

Wind, solar and energy storage developers are seeking to connect an almost inconceivably large 2 terawatts of renewable energy capacity to the U.S. grid, prompted by record-low prices and policy tailwinds, according to a recent study by Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

To put that 2 terawatts (or 2,000 gigawatts) into perspective, the total capacity of all existing power plants on the U.S. electric grid is 1,250 gigawatts.

The gigantic figure is a clear signal that developers are ready to roll out renewables, but it also underscores a key problem: There’s not enough transmission capacity to support the country’s aspirations to electrify everything and transition away from fossil fuels. The growing cost and time to connect renewable projects to the grid have exposed weaknesses in utility processes and transmission planning that are hobbling the U.S. energy transition.

Utilities and transmission system operators require new projects looking to connect to the grid to undergo a series of complex impact studies before they can get built. These studies determine the amount that developers will have to pay for grid upgrades to allow their projects to deliver power to the system. It’s an inefficient model that has been criticized for unfairly imposing grid improvement costs on developers.

Texas holds the lead for solar backlog, California leads in storage applications, and New York is the aspirational wind power leader, with a preference for the offshore variety. Arkansas makes a strong showing with 40 gigawatts of solar backlog even though the state has installed less than 1 gigawatt so far.

But only a small portion of projects in the interconnection queue will ever actually get built. Developers often attempt to price-shop by submitting interconnection applications with several system operators. Only one of five projects seeking grid connection from 2000 to 2017 were in operation by the end of 2022, according to the report, with 72 percent being withdrawn. Texas and New England had completion rates exceeding 30 percent for projects proposed from 2000 to 2017.

These bureaucratic bottlenecks can be addressed. As Canary’s Jeff St. John has reported, reforms are being proposed both to reduce the number of speculative projects in interconnection queues and to make the interconnection-study and upgrade-assessment processes less onerous. Even so, clean-energy advocacy groups say reform efforts are moving too slowly.

Despite the cost advantage renewables have over fossil fuels and the sweeping industrial policy of the Inflation Reduction Act, the U.S. won’t be able to deploy terawatts of clean generation without terawatts of new transmission.


Help Canary Media celebrate its second birthday by making a tax-deductible donation today!

Subscribe to receive Canary's latest news

Eric Wesoff is editorial director at Canary Media.

Maria Virginia Olano is editorial producer at Canary Media.