We need to generate renewable energy wherever it can be generated and transmit it to wherever it’s needed if we want the United States of America to be energy independent and take a leadership role in the fight against global warming. Transmission infrastructure is the key. To build it, we need to be truly united once again.

We’ve Tackled Colossal Challenges Head-On Before. Time to Do It Again.

by Lars Moller & Steve Quade

The energy independence of the United States of America depends on the nation being united, as does our ability to do our part in decelerating the impacts of global warming.

We find ourselves in a situation in which we have to generate renewable energy wherever it can be generated and transmit it to wherever it’s needed. That means states and citizens need to depend on and trust one another to deliver power from one end of the nation to the other.

It also means transmission is the key.

We can generate all the gigawatts we want from renewables to replace fossil fuels, but if we can’t get them into “the grid,” if we can’t get the electricity to the people and businesses that need it, there’s no point. We might as well not bother manufacturing wind and solar energy components and installing generation capacity in the first place, or at least not at rates that align with current forecasts.

Electricity & Transmission Demand

Demand for more electricity in the USA, and therefore more transmission and distribution lines and systems, is being driven by:

  • Population growth and the accompanying increases in housing, manufacturing facilities and businesses.
  • Decommissioning of retiring coal and nuclear power plants.
  • States’ drive to introduce more and more electric vehicles.

But the most significant driver of demand for more electricity, and in particular electricity from renewable energy sources, is global warming. It in turn has been the impetus for renewable portfolio standards (RPS) and clean energy standards (CES) that many U.S. states have adopted.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “as of November 2022, 36 states and the District of Columbia had established an RPS or a renewable energy goal. In 12 of those states (and the District of Colombia), the requirement is for 100% clean electricity by 2050 or earlier.” For example, California’s RPS requires that 50 percent of retail sales of electricity in the state be generated from renewable resources by 2030, and that the state’s power be 100 percent carbon-free by 2045. Other states have similar targets.

However, as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory points out, we lack the proper transmission infrastructure to handle all the new renewable generation. Without it, the RPSes become empty promises.

Our Daunting Task

We know we have to move renewably generated electrons efficiently and at much greater volume, but there are some significant transmission infrastructure challenges. The fact is, replacing fossil-fuels-generated electricity with renewables-generated electricity is far from a simple plug-and-play scenario.

Aging Infrastructure

Overall, our transmission infrastructure is aging and in desperate need of maintenance. Steps are already being taken to address this issue. For example, in June 2023 U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm began a tour of the U.S. to talk about renewable energy investments with a focus on new technologies that will help upgrade our grid. As Ventoco commented at the time, focusing on future technologies is essential, but we cannot simply wait; we must also deploy today’s technologies to meet the energy transition targets set by the USA and individual states for decreasing the amount of greenhouse gas the nation emits.

Location, Location, Location

Simply stated, the existing U.S. infrastructure was not designed to be compatible with renewables.

The reality is that places where most renewable electricity is generated on a utility scale are not where many people are. For example, the U.S. “wind corridor” runs from the central U.S.-Canadian border down through Texas, so for the most part that’s where onshore wind energy needs to be generated. The situation with solar energy is similar because, generally speaking, solar farms need to be built in less populated areas in the nation’s central corridor. But where are those wind- and solar-generated electrons needed? Primarily in population centers on the West and East Coasts.

Unfortunately, given our current circumstances, our high-voltage transmission systems were built specifically to transmit power from a few, larger, more centrally located coal, nuclear and hydroelectric generation plants to those population centers, not from smaller, widely disbursed wind and solar farms.

On top of that, the U.S. grid is a patchwork of independent system operators (ISOs) and regional transmission organizations (RTOs) with few physical (electrical) connections between them.

Not Enough Time

It takes 10 years to move a transmission line from conception to operation; clearly that doesn’t align with the seven years remaining before we hit 2030, the first of the RPS target dates. It’s also tough to get project financiers and investors to put their money down when it will be up to 10 years before they know if siting and regulatory issues will be cleared, especially since they’ll get zero return on their investments during that time.

Not Enough Transmission Capacity

According to the U.S. Dept. of Energy, the USA needs 47,000 gigawatt-miles (GW-mi) of new, high-voltage lines for regional transmission and interregional transfer capacity by 2035, a 57% growth from today’s system. Meanwhile, according to National Renewable Energy Lab’s recent 100-percent clean electricity study, the U.S. needs to construct 91,000 miles of new, high-voltage interregional transmission lines by 2035 to meet the demands of state RPSes and CESes.

Considering that, in 2021, only 386 miles of high voltage transmission lines were built in the USA, those are tall orders.

Get in (Transmission) Line

The Berkeley Lab explains that anytime there’s a proposed new project, the ISOs and RTOs require multiple studies to establish equipment and upgrade needs and their costs. “The lists of projects in this process are known as ‘interconnection queues.’ The amount of new electric capacity in these queues is growing dramatically, with over 2,000 gigawatts (GW) of total generation and storage capacity now seeking connection to the grid (over 95% of which is for zero-carbon resources like solar, wind, and battery storage).”

State-by-State Requirements

In the meantime, project developers and owners also need to obtain approval from each state through which their high-voltage interstate lines will run. Every state has its own requirements and approval processes, but in general applicants need to demonstrate additional need or demand within a state to get approval from its regulatory body, usually a public utilities commission.

In many cases, the public utilities commissions are concerned about sharing costs among their jurisdictional ratepayers; they don’t have much incentive to approve applications for transmission systems that would deliver most or all of their electricity to load stations in other states.

Transmission Infrastructure Solutions

We’ve risen to similar challenges before. Mobilization at home and abroad during World War II comes to mind, as does the “moonshot” of the 1960s.

A lesser-recognized but nevertheless crucial nationwide effort was construction of the Interstate Highway System. In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower initiated the “41,000-mile ‘National System of Interstate and Defense Highways’” which, for a variety of reasons, he considered “essential to the national interest.”

Seldom since that time have there been necessities more “essential to the national interest” than the need for its electricity equivalent, an Interstate Transmission System.

Getting one built is going to require that politicians grasp the critical situation we face; that they be honest and forthright with their constituencies ( U.S. citizens, i.e., us) about it; and we all have to comprehend and accept the need to cooperatively bear the burdens of building such a system. On this, at least, the “what’s in it for us” point of view needs to be set aside.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is already taking steps to get us closer to where we need to be. In December 2022 the agency issued a notice of proposed rulemaking for “changes to its regulations governing the siting of interstate electric transmission lines,” as authorized by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, “which expanded the scope of federal authority over transmission siting.”

That’s a great start, but in the meantime we need more effective tools and strategies for siting transmission lines on private and public lands. We also need to address the state-to-state discrepancies in permitting with more standardization. And, finally, we need to deal with what amounts to a state-vs.-state egocentricity related to interstate transmission permitting.

Under our present system, state public utilities commissions are justified in putting the interests of their ratepayers first. However, it’s time to get creative in making it palatable for them to approve transmission lines that traverse their states.

Part of the solution might be to create a national fund, managed by FERC, to compensate states that don’t otherwise benefit, either through additional electricity or financially, from new transmission infrastructure that passes through them. That’s just one idea; certainly our best minds can come up with more to create a comprehensive, workable solution.

Creating an interstate transmission system will not be easy, but it is essential. There’s no doubt we can get it done because we’ve done it before. Previous generations of Americans have come together in times of essential need to develop and implement solutions that benefitted everyone in the United States. Now it’s our time.