The $ 1 trillion infrastructure bill is a small step towards the US power grid we need.

Any effective plan to tackle climate change depends on the underlying technology: long wires stretched over tall towers.

The United States needs to add hundreds of thousands of miles of transmission lines over the coming decades to weave fragmented regional power grids into an interconnected grid capable of supporting massive influx of renewable energy sources.

The national network of short spur and long high voltage wires will deliver wind, solar and hydroelectric power where it is needed, when it is available across the country. This can help provide reliable backup power when heat waves or winter storms cause power shortages in the region, and meet growing demand as homes and businesses increasingly rely on electricity to power their vehicles, heating systems, and more.

This is a grand vision with several serious flaws. First, building the necessary transmission lines this decade alone could cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Led by Princeton study found that the US would need an additional $ 350 billion to develop the capacity needed over the next nine years. This is in line with a scenario where wind and solar power will provide half of the country’s electricity by 2030, allowing the country to fully reduce emissions by mid-century.

Even if the government and businesses free up the necessary funds, there is an even bigger challenge ahead: states, counties, cities and towns across the country will have to quickly sign dozens of new power lines. And the US has become terrible at allowing such multi-state projects.

BUT series of efforts deliver cheap, clean hydropower from Canada, Great Plains wind, and a mixture of renewable energy from the southwest have been mired in legal battles or rejected for years, often because one region did not want wires to run through its land. Even those large network projects that have been built can easily take a decade to go through the approval process.

Perhaps help will finally come. Approximately $ 1 Trillion infrastructure package Moving forward, the bipartisan Senate is committing billions of dollars to power lines. It also includes some provisions that may prove even more important than money by strengthening and clarifying federal powers to approve projects.

However, this package will represent only a small initial investment and permitting changes that will be required.

‘Lagging behind’

There is no single grid in the United States. Has three aging, disabled systems, mostly built around the middle of the last century, with limited capacity for electricity exchange between states and larger regions. This is a problem because power plants can be hundreds of miles away from major cities where electricity demand is greatest.

Isolated grids mean that electricity from fluctuating sources such as sun and wind can only be delivered as long as wasting some of the generation and lowering prices when generation exceeds regional demand during particularly windy and sunny periods (which is happening more and more often. make up a large share in the electricity supply). For example, California cannot deliver surplus solar power to the Midwest in the middle of a summer day, or harness sustainable wind power from, say, Oklahoma, when the sun begins to sink on the west coast.

But grid operators can use the cheapest electricity available over a much larger area and deliver it to places with high demand, said Doug Arent, executive director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Whatever renewables were producing electricity at the time, whether it was wind in Wyoming or solar power in Florida, they could find a market for themselves.

Long-distance high-voltage transmission lines also allow solar, wind, hydro and geothermal power plants to be developed in regions favorable to their supply by weather, geological or waterways: developers can count on a wider customer base in cities that may be within a distance of one -two time zones.

Recent Laurence Berkeley laboratory presentation noted that there are already over 750 gigawatts of power generation proposals in five regions of the United States waiting to be connected to transmission lines that could deliver power to consumers. The vast majority of them are solar and wind projects. (For comparison The entire US fleet large factories can generate just over 1,100 gigawatts.)

Other countries are advancing rapidly in this area. China has become the clear world leader in high voltage transmission, building tens of thousands of miles of these lines to connect its power plants to cities across the vast country. But while China developed 260 gigawatts of capacity between 2014 and 2021, all of North America added just seven, according to the data. interview hosted by Iowa State University.

“The US is lagging behind, but it has every reason to catch up,” says James McCallie, professor of power systems engineering at Iowa State University and co-author of the book. national network research published late last year, the report said.

Part of what it takes

So how could the United States begin to close this gap?

First, more money will be required. While the Biden administration has boasted that the infrastructure package calls for $ 73 billion for “clean energy transmission,” the funds are spread across a wide range of efforts, including research and development, and demonstration projects in areas such as carbon capture and clean hydrogen.

In the current version of the infrastructure package, only $ 10 billion to $ 12 billion is allocated specifically for the construction of towers and wires, said Rob Grumlich, president of the consulting firm Grid Strategies.

This is part of the amount that the Princeton study showed the US will need to invest over the next nine years. While federal spending is meant to unblock private equity, the US will still need to invest tens of billions more to reach the scale it needs this decade, according to Jesse Jenkins, co-author of the Princeton study and associate professor at the university.

It also sets up a $ 2.5 billion revolving credit program for projects, effectively making the DOE the first customer for the new transmission lines. This federal funding could help implement labor-intensive but necessary power transmission projects before a developer finds clients. Observers say this could alleviate the perennial chicken-and-egg problem between increasing electricity production and building the lines needed to transport it.

Ultimately, the federal government will be able to sell these rights to clean power plants that need access to the lines.

It’s a promising policy tool that “just needs another zero on this budget line,” Jenkins says.


Despite the lack of money, the proposed infrastructure bill addresses approval issues.

A long-standing problem in many parts of the US is that generating capacity and energy needs are growing faster than transmission systems. People and businesses need cheap and reliable electricity, but few have the necessary towers and wires, especially if they seem to deliver electricity and economic benefits mainly to remote areas. Often aesthetic, environmental, social justiceas well as criticism of business competition.

“If we’re going to achieve our climate goals, we need to find ways to approve these big power transmission projects — and we’ve historically tried to do that,” said Lindsay Walter, associate director of the Climate and Energy Program at Third Way. , a center-left think tank in Washington DC, in an email.

The Energy Law of 2005 aimed to address these tensions by providing Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) the ability to intervene and sign projects that can ease transmission restrictions in certain areas identified by national transmission corridors. But so far, the Department of Energy has identified only two such areas: in the mid-Atlantic Ocean and in Southern California.

In addition, the Federal Court of Appeals ultimately limited the powers of FERCupon finding that he is only eligible to sign projects if states or other jurisdictions delay the application for more than a year. The court ruled that it was not in a position to overturn the State’s rejection of the applications in accordance with the law.

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