One path to more power lines? Make US grid operators share more

With transmission snubbed in the recent debt ceiling deal, grid experts say minimum transfer capacity” requirements are key to getting more power lines built.
By Jeff St. John

  • Link copied to clipboard
A large transmission tower and power lines set against the backdrop of a blazing orange sky
(Robert Thiemann/Unsplash)

If there’s one thing the U.S. does not need, it’s another yearslong study showing that the addition of more big power lines connecting different regions of the country could help prevent extreme-weather-driven blackouts. But that’s exactly what the debt ceiling bill that Congress passed on Friday has ordered.

Now grid experts are worried that a legislative mandate meant to help expand and strengthen the U.S. power grid could actually delay the hard work needed to realize a truly nation-spanning transmission network.

The concern is, we know this is needed,” Christina Hayes, executive director of Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, said of interregional transmission. Study after study from groups such as the U.S. Department of Energy, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University has provided plentiful evidence of the cost-saving, clean-energy-expanding and blackout-preventing potential of expanding the capacity for moving energy from where it’s in ample supply to where it’s desperately needed.

More regional transfer capacity is also vital to the U.S. hitting its clean energy goals, said Hayes, whose advocacy group represents utilities, clean energy and transmission developers, and environmental and labor organizations. It takes many years to build new power lines, and anything that threatens to slow down progress could make things worse.

The DOE has a set of national transmission studies due this year that is expected to bolster the case for interregional power lines, Hayes said. The draft report released in March highlighted the value of being able to move power from resource-poor to resource-rich regions, particularly during extreme weather events.

DOE map showing the value of interregional transmission links across the U.S.

DOE’s draft study also demonstrates that there are significant gaps between existing interregional transfer capacity and the amount needed to reach 70 percent carbon-free electricity by 2030 and 95 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035.

Chart of existing U.S. interregional transmission transfer capacity versus that needed by 2035 to meet decarbonization goals

The U.S. government has at least one big lever to pull to accelerate these key transmission projects: setting minimum transfer requirements between regional transmission organizations. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has already opened an investigation into whether it should mandate these minimum power-sharing levels, Hayes said.

While that FERC process is expected to stretch into late 2023, bills proposed by Democrats in Congress this year would explicitly order FERC to take on this task. 

But with the passage of the debt ceiling bill, we’re worried we’re going to have another two and a half years of delay on these efforts,” she said. 

That’s because the language in the newly passed debt ceiling bill directs the North American Electric Reliability Corp., the nonprofit entity tasked with overseeing electric reliability in the U.S. and Canada, to spend up to 18 months consulting with every U.S. grid operator and utility to study how much transfer capacity” exists between them and how much more is needed to demonstrably strengthen reliability” between them. The North American Electric Reliability Corp. would then report its findings to FERC, which would have 12 more months to study them and report its conclusions to Congress.

That’s far too much time to spend studying a topic that’s already been well studied by DOE and many other experts, Shane Londagin, a longtime transmission project manager and policy adviser for innovation on the climate and energy team of Washington, D.C.–based think tank Third Way, noted in a tweet last week.

A lot of grid advocates would say we want minimum transfer requirements, not just a study of the capacity and potential,” Londagin said in a Friday interview. We are laser-focused on ensuring that this isn’t the only bite of the apple we get.”

Building a grid that’s bigger than the weather”

Speed is of the essence, given how long it takes for transmission to be built and for transmission regulatory structures to be reworked. 

New grid construction is occurring at a pace and scale far below what’s required to accommodate the massive amount of new clean energy necessary to reach the Biden administration’s goals of carbon-free electricity by 2035. In particular, the past decade has seen a steep decline in large-scale regional transmission projects needed to connect far-off solar and wind farms to population centers.

What’s more, amid the rising threat of climate-change-induced heat waves and cold snaps that can force the shutdown of power plants and fossil gas delivery networks, these large-scale interconnections are critical for grid resiliency. That’s because they also allow systems in weather-affected regions to import power from areas that aren’t under as much strain, making the grid bigger than the weather.”

That’s how Michael Goggin, a vice president at consulting firm Grid Strategies, described the benefits in a 2021 report that analyzed how these projects could have helped Texas better manage Winter Storm Uri, which pushed the state’s grid past its limit in February 2021.

A federal investigation found that failures of fossil-gas-fired power plants and gas delivery networks in subfreezing temperatures were the chief cause of the weeklong grid emergency, which forced grid operator ERCOT to order rolling outages that left millions of Texans without power, some for days at a time. These outages caused more than 100 deaths and billions of dollars in economic losses.

But Grid Strategies’ report found that increased transfer capacity between the isolated Texas grid and other parts of the country could have dramatically reduced the scale and duration of those outages. Neighboring grid regions with more robust interconnections were able to import power from other regions and suffered much less severe grid outages as a result.

More interregional transmission could have delivered similar benefits during a December 2022 winter storm that led to rolling blackouts for more than 1 million customers in parts of the U.S. Southeast, according to a Grid Strategies report analyzing the event. And the consultancy’s latest analysis concludes that even regional grids that already have far more interconnections than those in Texas or the Southeast can benefit from pulling power from beyond the geographic boundaries of cold fronts and heat waves.

The May report calculates the risk of Eastern U.S. and Texas grid regions being impacted by the correlated conventional generator outages” — predictable and widespread problems across coal, gas or nuclear generator fleets — that have occurred during winter storms and summer heat waves over the past decade.

We kept finding that extreme heat and extreme cold will knock out a lot of generation at the same time,” said Rob Gramlich, president of Grid Strategies. That’s where interregional transmission can actively save people’s lives,” he said.

Grid Strategies’ analysis determines that building enough transmission to allow regions to import from 20 to 25 percent of their peak electricity demand would ensure high levels of reliability and resilience” against future extreme weather and correlated outage threats. That would be a significant increase over the existing transfer capacity between regions, as calculated by the Washington, D.C.–based think tank Niskanen Center.

There are a lot of other reasons to build interregional transmission,” Gramlich noted, including its potential to reduce energy costs for consumers and allow clean energy to be delivered across the country.

The final transmission needs study from DOE expected to be completed this summer, along with another study on transmission planning expected late this year, will tell the world, and FERC, what magnitude of transmission is needed between which areas,” Gramlich said. But the reliability point should be strongly embraced by folks on both sides of the [political] aisle.”

Getting past the barriers to interregional transmission

So far, however, interregional transfer capacity has largely been a Democratic party priority. Politico reported that the BIG Wires Act, a bill sponsored by Colorado Senator John Hickenlooper (D) and California Representative Scott Peters (D) that would require grid regions to be able to transfer at least 30% of their peak demand between one another, was an early contender for inclusion in the debt ceiling bill.

But Republican lawmakers involved in the negotiations favored ordering a study rather than adding the provision directly, according to multiple news reports.

Other federal permitting reforms in the debt ceiling bill, such as setting time limits and centralizing federal authority for challenges to energy projects under the National Environmental Policy Act, are expected to have only a marginal effect on the permitting and cost-allocation challenges that have made building new transmission an increasingly costly, time-consuming and uncertain affair even as the need to build more power lines has become more dire.

And the bill’s special provisions to protect the controversial Mountain Valley fossil-gas pipeline project from challenges in federal courts or further review by federal agencies have triggered a backlash among environmental groups and some Democrats in Congress, in part because they do nothing to help transmission or clean energy.

Hayes, of Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, pointed out two other bills that her group supports, both proposed by New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich (D). One would offer federal tax credits for transmission projects, and the other would streamline FERC and DOE authority to designate certain long-range transmission projects as being vital to the national interest. Whether further permitting reforms will gain traction in a politically divided Congress is unclear, however.

Even if FERC and Congress act quickly on interregional transfer capacity policies, that would be just the start of a lengthy process. The BIG Wires Act would allow FERC up to 18 months to make rules for minimum transfer requirements and then give grid regions two years to craft their plans to comply with them.

Once FERC and DOE set out guidelines for mandating interregional transmission on their own, there’s a whole lot of work to figure out what route, what technologies, what combinations of transmission actions would satisfy the need,” Gramlich said. And then figuring out who pays and who gets to build and own — there would be a lot yet to be done.”

Getting utilities, state regulators and other stakeholders to agree on how to share the costs and calculate the benefits of interregional transmission has proven highly controversial. FERC Order 1000, passed in 2011 to promote interregional transmission collaboration among regional grid operators, utilities and state regulators, has failed to lead to a single new project.

That’s made for something of a lost decade for building the interregional grid capacity that studies say will be needed to combat climate change and bolster reliability against increasingly extreme weather.

We’re talking about outages that are caused predominantly by severe weather, which is a result of climate change,” Maine Senator Angus King (I) said during an energy reliability hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week. We should have been making this transition years ago, and we’re trying to make it in a hurry because we are in a crisis situation.”

But ACEG’s Hayes pointed out some ongoing developments that could serve as models. Many big power lines being planned by independent transmission developers fit the description, including the recently approved TransWest Express project between Wyoming and California, the SOO Green link from Iowa to Illinois, and the Champlain Hudson Power Express from Canada to New York City.

Collaborations between the grid operators that manage large swaths of the country’s transmission network are also starting to bear fruit, she said. Midwest grid operators Midcontinent Independent System Operator and Southwest Power Pool have been working for years on a plan to share the costs of transmission lines that cross their respective borders, which could unlock significant new capacity for wind and solar projects, for example.

I just think we need to work the process,” she said. Where you have neighbors with common goals, this can certainly be achieved.” 

Hayes and Gramlich agreed that this kind of work can and should continue at the same time as the study ordered by the debt ceiling bill gets underway.

Hopefully, everyone steps back and realizes that FERC still has every bit of authority today that it had yesterday and that Congress can address any of these issues,” Gramlich said. It doesn’t have to wait for this study. There are plenty of studies out there.” 

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.