Transmission: No Easy Fix

Source: By Josh Siegel, Washington Examiner • Posted: Thursday, July 30, 2020

 Reaching any ambitious decarbonization goal requires massive investments in transmission power lines to deliver wind and solar power, but there is no easy fix to upgrade the nation’s processes for building the lines, FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee said Thursday.

“Everyone understands the need for additional investments in our transmission system,” Chatterjee, a Republican, said in a keynote address to WIRES, a transmission industry group that held its summer meeting remotely. “It is one of the areas where there is bipartisan support in a divided Washington. Congress is aware decarbonization goals are totally dependent on new transmission investment.”

But, Chatterjee said, “there is no doubt the issues are difficult.”

The problems are many: We have previously documented how transmission projects often require 10 or more years to be approved and developed, because of a diffuse permitting process that is subject to delay due to local opposition from people living near the planned power lines — a problem known as not-in-my-backyard-ism, or NIMBYism. Abby zooms in today (see below) on an ongoing challenge to build a transmission line that would bring Canadian hydropower through Maine to Massachusetts.

The problem is that, unlike with natural gas pipelines, the federal government has little power to approve transmission, 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.

Chatterjee tries to thread the needle: FERC has proposed “targeted fixes” to reform its transmission incentives policy to encourage companies to build them, but Chatterjee said he is reluctant to take larger action, such as revisiting “Order 1000.”

That FERC order, issued in July 2011, tried to expand transmission by revising rules on planning, allocating costs, and competitive bidding. But it has not promoted competition as intended, prompting calls from both sides of the aisle for reform.

“Order 1000 clearly isn’t delivering the results envisioned. What to do about it is a very challenging thing,” Chatterjee said. “With all the complex challenges we are facing, to try to reopen Order 1000 is biting off more than we can chew.”

The stakes: Chatterjee heralded the rise of renewables, which he said led to lower electricity prices, declining emissions, all while maintaining reliability.

“These trends can only continue if the transmission system is up to the task,” he warned.