Message to Biden: Boost FERC, expand grid

Source: By Arianna Skibell, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Policy analysts are urging President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration to use existing authority to expand the nation’s electric grid and to consider boosting the role of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

A study out of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy and New York University’s Institute for Policy Integrity focused on the need for more long-distance transmission capacity to ship carbon-free solar and wind power across the country.

“The administration should make as much progress as it can using existing authorities,” Sam Walsh, a partner at Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis LLP and co-author of the study, said during a webinar yesterday.

The development of high-voltage long-distance lines is among the most challenging energy infrastructure issues. Projects often face a tough slog at the state level, federal energy policy has been unsteady, and property rights advocates often oppose bids to site new lines.

The study’s authors identified three main avenues through which FERC and the Department of Energy can improve the prospects of new interstate transmission lines.

One avenue is the use of Section 216 of the Federal Power Act, which directs DOE to designate energy transmission corridors. If a state stalls or rejects a project deemed in the national interest, the law authorizes FERC to issue a permit that preempts state control over transmission siting.

“The reality is we need new long-distance transmission lines if we want to keep this [energy] transition affordable and do it on a timeline that’s going to both mitigate climate change and protect public health,” said Melissa Lott, a senior researcher at the Columbia University policy center.

The report urges DOE officials to designate new transmission corridors to enable renewable energy development and the transmission of that power. “Those corridors should be undertaken in close coordination with FERC’s process for issuing federal permits,” the report says. “To further streamline the process, DOE should consider delegating its corridor designation process to FERC.”

The second avenue is Section 1222 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which authorizes DOE to partner with private companies to develop transmission lines and other infrastructure. This would free development efforts from state regulatory constraints and give companies federal eminent domain authority.

And the third avenue is through the federal Power Marketing Administrations that deliver hydropower generated by federal dams. These entities have statutory authority to develop new transmission facilities across large areas of the United States.

“Decarbonization, utility goals, and renewable policies require a significant amount of transmission,” said Rob Gramlich, executive director of Americans for a Clean Energy Grid. “We need two to three times the delivery capacity we currently have. That is a massive amount of new transmission.”

Cheryl LaFleur, a former FERC commissioner, praised the study and said it’s the right time for FERC to pick up transmission planning.

“FERC is deeply divided on many issues,” she said. “Transmission planning is not one.”

LaFleur said it would likewise be important for the next administration to distinguish between regulatory measures intended for fossil fuel projects versus renewable ones.

Biden administration officials should ensure that “any efforts they take to strengthen environmental reviews of gas pipelines and fossil fuel projects do not somewhere spill over and make it hard for renewable projects,” LaFleur said. “It’s important that the federal government look at how it can help projects get built, not just slow down the ones some people might not want.”

David Hill, a research scholar at Columbia, echoed this point, urging an embrace of some of President Trump’s changes to how the federal government interprets the National Environmental Policy Act (E&E News PM, Nov. 4).

Hill said there’s some risk in people taking the position that everything the Trump administration did around NEPA should be rejected by the incoming administration. “This will really backfire when it comes to building transmission,” he said during yesterday’s webinar. “They need to think long and hard about the NEPA reforms and save a lot of them, in my view.”