No “Red Tape” Relief in Biden $100 Billion Plan for the Grid

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At a $2 trillion price tag, there’s a lot to talk about in President Biden’s unprecedented infrastructure proposal to Congress.  The President’s ambitious plan allocates $621 billion for transportation infrastructure and resilience, $213 billion for affordable housing, $111 billion for clean water, $100 billion for broadband, and $100 billion to build out the Bulk Electric System (BES) so that “…we can move cheaper, cleaner electricity to where it is needed most.”  Unfortunately, what we can’t talk about is any proposed regulatory relief in the President’s plan to help get that cheaper and cleaner power “to where it is needed most.”

Over the past several years, we’ve written multiple blog posts and an op-ed discussing the “red tape” or local, state, and regulatory impediments plaguing the modernization and expansion of the Grid.  My first blog post as the newly minted executive director of Energy Fairness lamented the inadequate transmission infrastructure needed for the continued rapid growth of wind, solar and other renewables.   Last June, Utility Dive published our piece calling for the streamlining of regulations governing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in light of the 11 years it took PacifiCorp to obtain the necessary Federal permits for its Gateway West Project in Wyoming.

Fortunately, our calls for regulatory streamlining have echoed key lawmakers and Federal agencies, like the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), concerns about the “red-tape” strangling transmission development.  At December 2017 Senate Energy Committee hearing, then chairman Senator Lisa Murkowski highlighted how the “…number of federal, state, and local agencies involved in a single project makes permitting notoriously cumbersome.” 

Congress codified the senator’s concern in the 2020 Consolidated Appropriations Act by directing FERC to produce a report “outlining the barriers and opportunities for high voltage transmission…” including “…permitting barriers, and any barriers in state or federal policy…” In its June 2020 report, FERC found that there are “…[regulatory] barriers which make development of high voltage transmission challenging.”  Moreover, “…the time required to develop a high voltage transmission facility…can be in excess of a decade.”

As we said in June, “Three years. Five Years.  A decade plus.  This is too long to prevent worthwhile [transmission] projects from moving forward.”  That is why we have advocated for the streamlining of NEPA not just as a winning move for the renewables industry and jobs but integrating wind and solar into the Grid and ensuring that affordable and reliable energy is available when customers need it.  Why?  Because even opponents of NEPA reform, like the Solar Energy Industries Associated, have publicly stated, “…environmental review of a proposed solar plant on public land can take three to five years…streamlining and expediting NEPA reviews could reduce costs and delays.”   

Unfortunately, the lack of support from the Biden Administration for continuing the efforts to streamline NEPA has been deafening.  It forces us to ask the question, will Congress be directing the FERC to conduct another study in five years asking about “barriers and opportunities for high voltage transmission”?

We hope that’s not the case, but without the regulatory relief to accompany the $100 billion investment in transmission proposed by the President, that is precisely the question Congress will ask in five years.