Shift to Clean Energy Grid Presents Challenges for US Official

Source: By Chuck McCutcheon, Bloomberg Law • Posted: Monday, October 24, 2022

Transmission towers outside the Crimson Battery Energy Storage Project in Blythe, Calif. Photographer: Bing Guan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Energy Department is starting programs to funnel billions into transmission lines, distribution grid networks, microgrids, and storage facilities as part of an attempt to spur more clean energy deployment, even as congressional efforts stall to overhaul infrastructure permitting.

The agency’s Grid Deployment Office, created in August, is facing the difficult task of allocating dollars in a way that achieves the most bang for the buck and satisfies industry, states, and environmental groups, Maria Robinson, the office’s director, told Bloomberg Law.

A case in point: It is weighing public comments due this month on a $10.5 billion initiative to fund grid resiliency. That program could tackle a handful of major areas—or be spread to a variety of projects, Robinson said.

“That’s something we continue to grapple with—understanding that, at some point, we’re spreading funding around too thinly while at the same time acknowledging there are a lot of potential projects that could have significant impact at lower costs,” she said.

Siting Authority

Absent a permitting bill in Congress, Robinson’s office is hoping to spur transmission while wading into opposition from states and environmental groups.

Maria Robinson. Photo courtesy DOE

The office is drafting studies that lay the groundwork to declare “national interest” transmission corridors that would guide federal siting authority for new lines. Those corridors would unlock $2 billion in loan money in the climate and tax bill, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, that Democrats passed in August.

Federal moves to issue permits run into concerns from state utility commissions, which have long exercised transmission siting authority. The department’s previous approach to site lines across broader regions were struck down in court.

The office is planning to weigh “narrower” corridors focused on specific routes or projects, Robinson said. The office is also assessing the climate bill’s $760 million for siting authorities, a pot of money that could be used for economic development in communities impacted by interstate transmission lines.

“We’re really looking at engaging the folks that will be most impacted potentially,” Robinson said. “A lot of our focus at this point is how we at the department can also use some of the funding provided in the IRA to help with some of the projects that might be named in the national interest in one of those particular corridors.”

‘Light a Fire’

The office is hoping to spur sweeping improvements to the century-old power grid at a time when the Biden administration’s climate goals have become a power grid problem, energy experts say.

On the consumer side, power demand is set to soar as electric vehicles roll out and household appliances shift away from gas. On the producer side, renewable energy costs have fallen and will be further encouraged by incentives in the climate-and-tax bill.

“If you can’t connect the two things, we’re going to have to depend on coal and gas,” said Kenneth Irvin, partner at Sidley Austin LLP who co-chairs the energy practice. “You’d think that would light a fire under FERC and DOE to get going on this stuff.”

Irvin said he has clients interested in seizing DOE incentives but is frustrated at the sluggish federal pace to build transmission lines. Regulatory delays have stalled numerous transmission projects, with states and local groups opposing many of them.

Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) proposed permitting overhaul would grant the energy secretary authority to declare national interest and allow the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to issue a construction permit—eliminating the corridor study process. The bill was unable to win enough support in Congress last month, but provisions are still under consideration before the end of the year.

Avoiding Delays

Some additional transmission capacity will come from using existing rights-of-way on federal land and those used by highways, railroads, and utility companies, Robinson said.

Installing advanced electricity conductors on existing lines is also promising, she said. Those are more conductive materials, such as carbon fiber cores, that move electricity more efficiently than steel cores.

Deploying advanced conductors on some of the grid can help to connect at least 27 gigawatts of zero-carbon generating capacity annually over the next 10 years, according to a March 2022 report published by the American Council on Renewable Energy. One of the authors, Jay Caspary, now works as a senior consultant in the grid office.

It would be “pretty exciting to be able to not have to worry about all of the siting and permitting issues that you would typically face with new transmission,” Robinson said.

Renewable energy supporters want the office to move swiftly to use all measures possible to advance transmission.

“Unconstrained transmission is really important to make the most of incentives that were passed and also to make sure we don’t have reliability concerns,” said Christina Hayes, executive director of Americans for a Clean Energy Grid.

Building Consensus

Robinson is no stranger to political opposition.

She was initially tapped to lead the department’s Office of Electricity, but the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee deadlocked in May, with Republican members chafing at her support for clean energy and citing high energy prices in Massachusetts, where she was the first Korean-American elected to the state legislature.

In July, she was appointed to lead the Grid Deployment Office, a position that requires no Senate confirmation.

“We’ve really had to build our entire office from scratch, everything from budget and procurement folks, as well as the program people who will actually be implementing a third of the bipartisan infrastructure bill,” Robinson said.

Support for grid investment is “absolutely bipartisan,” Robinson said, citing her work with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.