REPORT: Want Renewables? Build More Transmission.

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More than two years ago, I wrote my first article as the newly minted Executive Director of Energy Fairness.  The article? The need for adequate electric transmission to realize the continued and reliable expansion of renewable energy.  Fast-forward two years and the story remains the same.  Renewable energy development continues to be constrained by inadequate transmission capacity and inhibiting permitting authorities.

That is precisely the argument made in a new report recently published by the Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy. The report’s major conclusion? The current permitting process for transmission remains a serious problem. Or specifically, “Retaining the current process for siting these transmission lines may stymie the development of renewable resources in critical locations across the United States where sunshine and wind are plentiful.”

Over the past three years, this sentiment has been echoed by the Chairman of the U.S. Senate Energy Committee who noted that the  “…the number of federal, state, and local agencies involved in a single [transmission] project makes permitting notoriously cumbersome” to Dr. Jenni Jorgensen with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory who said, “the existing [transmission] infrastructure was not built considering the changing [green] energy landscape.”

Knowing that the overarching problem to a build-out of the Bulk Electric Transmission System is contending with the patchwork of local, state, and federal permitting regulations, what’s the solution? According to the report, “Building A New Grid Without New Legislation: A Path To Revitalizing Federal Transmission Authorities,” the answer clearly doesn’t lie in new legislative authority from Congress. Rather, the solution lies in using “…existing federal authorities” to develop critical long-distance transmission.   

The solution, on paper, seems so simple. So why haven’t presidential administrations from Bush to Obama to now Trump used them to build out the Grid? It’s complicated. The report readily admits that Federal court rulings have clearly stymied laws intended to streamline electric transmission siting authorities. However, existing Federal laws like Section 216 of the Federal Power Act, Section 1222 of the 2005 Energy Policy Act or eminent domain authorities granted to the Federal Power Marketing Administrations (entities that transmit and market power from Federally owned dams) could all be used effectively to commence a much-needed expansion of the Grid.

Specifically, the report calls on the Department of Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to use Section 216 to issue a Federal siting permit when a given state’s permitting process is dragging on. It calls on the use of Section 1222 of the Domenici-Bingaman Energy Policy act as a way to develop critical transmission facilities through Federal-private partnerships. The use of this authority would also enable the use of a federal siting authority.   And finally,  given their expansive footprint throughout parts of the West,  the report calls for much more aggressive use of Federal eminent domain authorities granted to the Federal Power Marketing Authorities.  

Whatever Federal authority is used, something must be done to upgrade, enhance, and improve the Bulk Electric Transmission System to accommodate the continued “greening” of the Grid through the development of utility-scale renewable energy projects. With consumers and utilities alike demanding more and more access to affordable, clean, and reliable energy, it just makes sense.