New effort to overhaul transmission

Source: By Josh Siegel, Washington Examiner • Posted: Wednesday, June 17, 2020

 Clean energy groups armed with funding from billionaire Bill Gates launched an initiative Wednesday to expand and upgrade the nation’s “antiquated” transmission lines needed to deliver wind and solar power, a key weakness in the U.S. that limits efforts to reduce emissions from electricity.

The American Council on Renewable Energy and Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, with backing from Gates’ Breakthrough Energy, plan to use its “Macro Grid” project as a mechanism to raise awareness and generate support for building transmission, which is plagued by opposition at the local, not federal, level.

“We can save consumers a ton of money and achieve dramatic reductions in emissions with a common sense effort to connect the different regional electricity markets and connect population centers with areas of our country richest with renewable resources,” Greg Wetstone, CEO of ACORE, told Josh in a joint interview that also included Rob Gramlich, ACEG’s executive director.

Transmission lines are critical to transporting electricity from places, typically rural areas, that have an abundance of wind or solar to consumers in population centers that don’t generate significant renewable electricity.

But building transmission is hard: Major long-distance transmission projects require 10 or more years to be approved and developed, because of a diffuse permitting process that is subject to delay because of local opposition from people living near the planned power lines — a problem known as not-in-my-backyard-ism, or NIMBYism.

Unlike with natural gas pipelines, which have also been plagued by NIMBYism mostly because of environmental reasons, the federal government has little power to approve transmission lines, with the authorities mostly delegated to states.

And the places where power lines would need to be built don’t necessarily benefit from using or generating the power, making it harder to get their approval to build.

With little federal power, it’s about fostering a ‘shared vision’: Wetstone and Gramlich say their initiative is a high-level effort intended to raise awareness on the value of transmission, and encourage greater coordination between regions and operators of wholesale electricity markets.

“It’s true our current policy and regulatory structure was not set up for a national or multiregional grid,” Gramlich said. “It’s also true when there is a shared vision, those local and state proceedings become a little more easier.”

The initiative does contain at least one policy proposal, however. Wetstone and Gramlich, working with other clean energy stakeholders, intend to propose a rule to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to encourage better planning and coordination for building transmission lines.

Not just for geeks: Wetstone and Gramlich are optimistic improving transmission enjoys bipartisan support. It hasn’t gotten much attention in the presidential race, but House Democrats addressed transmission siting in their 100% clean economy bill, and conservative Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida called for streamlining the approval process in his proposed “Green Real Deal” climate plan.

“We are trying to get the issue beyond electricity geekdom,” Wetstone said.