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Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

Here’s where the Biden admin wants to build new power lines — ASAP

The Department of Energy wants to use a long-dormant — and controversial — federal authority to fast-track transmission projects crucial to the energy transition.
By Jeff St. John

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Transmission towers seen from below against a blue sky
(Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

The Biden administration has unveiled its latest effort to expand the country’s overburdened power grid: identifying 10 swaths of the country where it plans to wield a never-before-used federal authority to fast-track and fund major transmission grid projects. 

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Energy released a preliminary list of National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors, or NIETCs — areas where DOE has determined that more high-voltage power lines and grid infrastructure are needed to expand clean energy deployment, lower electricity costs, and forestall the risk of grid blackouts driven by extreme weather.

The proposed designations are the first step in a process that will go through several rounds of feedback from the public, regulators, and regional grid operators before being finalized. But once the corridors are locked in — a step that could be achieved by year’s end — the Biden administration will be able to knock down barriers for transmission projects in the designated areas and more easily lend money to those efforts. 

We’re serious about building out the infrastructure we need to tackle the climate crisis — and building it right by gathering public input early on in the process,” John Podesta, senior advisor to the president for clean energy innovation and implementation, said in a Tuesday briefing with reporters.

Mapping the hotspots for grid expansion

The transmission corridors on the map DOE released Wednesday include parts of the Southwest, Great Plains, mid-Atlantic, and Northeast U.S. where increasingly congested and constrained grids are throttling the flow of gigawatts of low-cost wind and solar power to population centers — and stalling the connection of hundreds of gigawatts of new clean energy projects to the grid. 

Map of proposed National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors from DOE, May 2024

Many of the corridors would also connect different regional grids, a move that would strengthen their ability to withstand winter storms and summer heat waves by making a grid that’s bigger than the weather” in any one region. 

The preliminary list includes corridors that overlap with the routes of long-range transmission projects that developers are now seeking to build. Those include a pathway from Kansas to Illinois that matches up with the planned Grain Belt Express, a $7 billion project meant to carry 5,000 megawatts of power from the wind-rich Kansas plains to Missouri, Illinois, and the broader Eastern U.S. grid. 

Many of the corridors on Wednesday’s preliminary list also correspond to those identified in DOE’s National Transmission Needs Study,” released last October, which sought to identify the highest-value areas for new transmission. 

That study also backed up a wide body of data and analysis indicating that the slow pace of U.S. grid expansion — stymied by conflicts over siting, permitting, and paying for new transmission capacity — threatens to derail the transition to clean energy. Academic, nonprofit, and government studies indicate the U.S. must more than double its current transmission grid capacity to meet the Biden administration’s goal of a zero-carbon grid by 2035, which will require a far faster pace of growth than the country has seen over the past two decades. 

Historically the permitting process for clean energy infrastructure, particularly transmission, has been plagued by delays and bottlenecks, at every level — federal, state, and local,” Podesta said. 

Wednesday’s announcement is part of a string of actions from the Biden administration and Congress to unlock grid expansion, he said. 

But the preliminary NIETC list is just the start of an ongoing process, a senior DOE official emphasized during Tuesday’s briefing. Next is a due diligence phase” involving public feedback as well as having conversations with state regulators” and regional grid operators to seek a consensus on which of the 10 areas identified this week will move on to final NIETC designation later this year, the official said. 

Final designation will open up a host of options for the federal government to speed and streamline siting, permitting, and financing of projects within the NIETC zones, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said during the Tuesday briefing. 

The first is access to federal financial support. Projects receiving NIETC designation will be eligible for $2 billion in loans from a program created by the Inflation Reduction Act, Granholm said. Those loans, available only to NIETC-designated transmission efforts, are expected to enable up to $25 billion in private-sector backing for projects by shifting a portion of the risk onto the federal government. The hope is that this increased security will convince private financiers to lend more money to transmission developers or drop their interest rates. 

That program is separate from a $2.5 billion pool of funds created by the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that DOE has already used to lend $1.3 billion to three transmission projects last year and $331 million to another project last month. 

The final NIETC designation could also enable the Biden administration to use federal powers of eminent domain to site and permit projects opposed by state regulators, local governments, landowners, and environmental groups. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an independent agency with authority over interstate transmission, is currently working on rules that would create the regulatory structure for using this backstop” siting and permitting authority. 

Podesta and Granholm declined to comment on when they expect FERC to finalize that rulemaking, which was launched in 2022, or what outcome they expect it to yield. 

But we’re certainly looking forward to whatever their decision is,” Granholm said, because it could be the next important step in unlocking transmission across the country.” 

The government is likely to face backlash once it puts this eminent-domain authority to use. DOE and FERC have had this authority since it was created under the 2005 Energy Policy Act, but early efforts to use it were stymied by court decisions in favor of states, landowners, and environmental groups. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law restricted the ability of state regulators to block use of NIETC authority, potentially clearing one significant hurdle to its application.

Granholm expressed optimism that the NIETC designations can help clear transmission bottlenecks. This program is going to help us build out transmission capacity quickly and efficiently for the people who need it most, without compromising on the quality of environmental reviews or community outreach,” she said. DOE will continue to work with Congress, environmental groups, and state and community advocates about any concerns or challenges that they anticipate.”

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.