FERC releases low-CO2 blueprint. Will Biden follow it?

Source: By Peter Behr and Arianna Skibell, E&E News reporters • Posted: Thursday, August 13, 2020

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission staff released a report last week addressing strategies for building more high-voltage transmission lines — a path to bringing large amounts of renewable electricity online and a likely plank in presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s agenda.

FERC’s “Report on Barriers and Opportunities for High Voltage Transmission” lists ways the commission could accelerate investments in multistate power lines that could link prime wind and solar energy locations like the Great Plains and Southwest with distant urban centers.

Long-distance transmission “provides greater access to location-constrained resources in support of renewable resource goals,” said the report, which was written by FERC staff and addressed to the House and Senate Appropriations committees.

“New high voltage transmission lines can increase the availability of carbon-free energy and facilitate the replacement of energy generated by fossil fuels, thereby helping states meet their targets by reducing GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions,” the report added, naming goals that are not President Trump’s.

The report, which is nonpartisan and doesn’t mention Biden by name, does provide a map for the kind of renewable surge called for by the former vice president and other policymakers.

Biden’s $2 trillion climate policy proposal calls for all U.S. electricity output to come from zero-carbon sources by 2035, which would require substituting clean energy options for natural gas, coal and petroleum generation while also expanding the grid to accommodate more electric vehicles and space heating. Last year, fossil fuel sources delivered nearly two-thirds of utility-scale U.S. electricity supply (Energywire, July 15).

If elected, Biden would be able to choose a new FERC chairman and seek a commission majority committed to his clean energy policies. The campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment on the FERC study.

Biden’s climate policy advisers have not offered a detailed strategy for hitting the 2035 goal, and the campaign faces sharply contending strategies from a wide range of advocates and interest groups (Climatewire, Aug. 7).

The FERC actions outlined in the staff report could move a climate agenda forward faster compared to more complex, grassroots options such as replacing gasoline vehicles with battery-powered ones, retrofitting office buildings and homes with clean, efficient energy systems, or outfitting tens of millions of buildings with solar panels.

But barriers to transmission infrastructure remain to be overcome, headed by current requirements for state-by-state agreements for big interstate projects, the FERC report said.

“[M]any states look only at the intra-state burdens and benefits of a proposed project without considering the project’s overall multi-state or regional benefits,” the report said. The issue could grow worse in the future “as there is an increasing need to interconnect remote renewable resources, such as hydropower and wind facilities, to the grid using high voltage transmission facilities,” the FERC staff said.

Overhauling Order 1000

The report also suggests that FERC may need to amend its landmark policy on transmission development, Order 1000, adopted in 2011, to overcome hurdles to high-voltage transmission development. At the time, FERC directed regional transmission organizations to consult about multistate transmission project proposals, but no more than that, opening the door to planning paralysis, according to the WIRES group, a trade association that promotes investment in the high-voltage grid.

WIRES Executive Director Larry Gasteiger welcomed the analysis, calling it “really helpful in terms of outlining some of the background of this issue with getting transmission sited and permitted at the federal and state level.”

Without stronger transmission policy, zero carbon electricity sources would likely supply only half of the nation’s electric power by 2035, the San Francisco think tank Energy Innovation: Policy and Technology LLC has calculated.

To reach the high levels of renewable power Biden has called for, FERC and regional transmission organizations could require regional planning that aims to meet state and federal clean energy goals, and change Order 1000 to set formulas for allocating power line project costs if states or regions don’t act, the think tank proposed.

“I think the Biden campaign is showing they are really looking at the clean energy community proposals, and what the research is showing is possible and beneficial,” said Energy Innovation senior policy analyst Megan Mahajan. “That is a very promising sign.”

Although Republican and Democratic FERC commissioners have argued heatedly over subsidies for renewable power, there also could be bipartisan support for some transmission policy expansion.

Republican FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee has stressed the importance of investment in transmission infrastructure for both reliability and to meet renewable energy goals.

“We’ve seen the rise of renewables, as zero emissions resources have become cost competitive,” Chatterjee said on a recent webinar hosted by WIRES. “And, frankly, consumer preferences have shifted, as everyone from families to Fortune 500 companies are demanding cleaner sources of energy.”

Chatterjee repeated the necessity of transmission build-out during a presentation Tuesday for the Ontario Energy Association.

“Since starting at FERC, one of my top priorities has been ensuring that we have the right transmission infrastructure in place to bring new energy sources online and usher in the grid of the future — a grid that is able to keep up with the pace of change,” he said. “That’s a tall order for long-lived assets like transmission projects, and it will take both investment and forward-thinking ideas.”

Calls for a ‘supergrid’

While the Biden team considers its climate options, it has already heard from Democratic congressional leadership through the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis in its June policy plan.

Included in the nearly 550-page plan are proposals to move toward a “national supergrid” of long-distance, high-voltage, direct-current (HVDC) lines to open access to wind and solar power sources; direct FERC to develop a long-range electric infrastructure strategy to achieve 100% clean energy by 2040, including the use of existing railroad and highway rights of way; and amend federal law to empower FERC to designate “national interest” energy transmission corridors in which new power lines could have priority. The plan said FERC could have “backstop” authority to site such lines to overrule disputes among states over proposed projects.

The proposed amendments to the Federal Power Act would revitalize authority enacted by Congress in 2005 only to be tied up by legal actions, the House climate committee said.

“Those authorities are not dead,” said Rob Gramlich, executive director of Americans for a Clean Energy Grid. “They have not been used. They could be used if a future FERC and administration wanted to.”

Gramlich said the latest FERC report “begins an important national discussion about making much greater use of highway and rail corridors as a way around some of the well-known barriers to transmission.”