Why the U.S. is so bad at building clean energy, in 3 charts

Source: By Shannon Osaka, Washington Post • Posted: Thursday, May 18, 2023

As Congress battles over the debt ceiling and permitting reform, here’s what’s at stake

A large solar field north of the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Boulder City, Nev., in 2022. (Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post)

The United States has big plans to move away from fossil fuels. By 2050, the Biden administration has promised, the country will have a carbon footprint of zero — thanks to thousands of wind and solar farms, new nuclear and geothermal power plants, electric vehicles and all-electric homes and buildings.

There’s just one problem: The United States really isn’t very good at building clean energy.

This paradox has become a central question in the anxiety-inducing race to raise the debt ceiling this month. Congressional leaders, haggling over how best to avoid default, have suggested that including legislation to speed up the development of energy projects and power lines — known as “permitting reform” — could help cement a final deal. (They have very different ideas of what that legislation should include: Democrats want to focus on building interstate power lines, while Republicans want to speed up the process of building power plants, including fossil-fuel ones.)

But how bad is the United States, actually, at building all the wind, solar and geothermal needed to eliminate carbon pollution? And why does it take years to build seemingly simple projects?

These three charts show why the country is lagging in its quest to build clean energy, and how certain policies could help.

Clean energy projects stuck in line

The United States needs an estimated 950 gigawatts of clean energy and around 225 gigawatts of storage to substantially clean up its electricity sector. But, almost unbelievably, projects accounting for more than 1,200 gigawatts of clean energy and more than 650 gigawatts of storage have already been proposed; they just can’t get connected to the grid.

This is the frustration of the country’s “interconnection queue,” a long line of projects across the country that are waiting to get plugged in to the country’s aging electricity grid. Right now, key areas of the grid are at capacity — imagine a freeway traffic jam — and new wind and solar can’t be added unless the grid is upgraded, which costs developers money. According to data from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the number of renewable projects waiting in the queue has skyrocketed in recent years.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” said Joe Rand, an energy policy researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley lab. “There’s the really good news that all this clean energy capacity is trying to connect to the grid. But then there’s the backlog and bottlenecks and barriers.”

Many developers end up withdrawing their projects due to the high costs of connecting to the grid. According to Rand’s data, only 21 percent of the projects entering the long line ultimately get built. And for the projects that do get built, getting through the process takes years. It now takes an average of about five years for an energy project to be operational once it enters the queue.

Federal agencies are working on streamlining the process, and the Biden administration has cited this long wait for approval as one area where Congress should act. “Congress should reform the transmission interconnection queue so that new generation projects are not stuck in line,” the White House said in a statement last week.

But one way to alleviate the queue problem is to fix another issue: The slow rollout of transmission lines.

Power lines are painfully slow

Coal and natural gas plants pollute the air and warm the climate, but they do have one upside: They can be on all the time. Wind and solar, however, only produce power at certain times of the day. And some sites are way better (that is, windier or sunnier) than others for producing renewable energy.

“The best sites for wind and solar happen to be in the sunny Southwest or the windy Midwest,” said Johan Cavert, a transmission policy analyst at the think tank the Niskanen Center. “And those areas are just not near the biggest population centers.”

So a country that wants to be largely — around 80 percent, let’s say — powered by renewable electricity needs to have big, interstate transmission lines that carry power from where the renewable energy is generated to where it will be used.

But building transmission lines is slow and complex. Lines often have to cross through states that don’t benefit from them, and the federal government can’t just rubber-stamp those projects. That means that a transmission line can take eight to 15 years to build, slowing progress on clean energy. (A natural gas pipeline, on the other hand, only takes around three years to build.)

A transmission line started now might not be finished until the mid-2030s — well after the point that the United States should have already slashed emissions.

Many Democrats want to prioritize giving the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission more transmission siting authority in any permitting deal. But Republicans argue that authority could infringe on state’s rights.

Local communities push back

As wind and solar farms increasingly gobble up unused land around the country, renewable infrastructure is getting closer and closer to rural communities that aren’t always welcoming of new energy development. In recent years, the number of local communities who have rejected wind and solar farms has risen, according to the Renewable Rejection Database managed by journalist Robert Bryce.

Communities have cited historical heritage, the fear of falling property values, or simply not liking the look of wind and solar as reasons for rejecting projects.

Republicans have suggested narrowing the timeline for environmental reviews, which would ease some of the opposition to energy projects. But this would apply to both fossil fuel projects and clean energy projects — and Democrats worry that loosening the rules under the National Environmental Policy Act might boost oil, gas and coal operations. It currently takes projects an average of 4.5 years to make it through this federal gantlet.

The Biden administration has supported Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.)’s plan, which would impose a two-year time limit on reviews and allow developers to sue if the process extends beyond that. This proposal includes more authority for building transmission, but would also approve the natural gas Mountain Valley Pipeline — a sticking point for some Democrats.

It’s still unclear whether a permitting deal will make it across the finish line in the debt ceiling negotiations — and, if it does, how much it will boost renewable energy and transmission. But something will have to change if America wants to reach its clean energy goals.