DOE touts grid expansion plans as operators raise concerns

By Peter Behr, Miranda Willson | 02/27/2023 06:48 AM EST

Some U.S. grid organizations are pushing back against elements of a Department of Energy draft report that makes the case for adding major power lines.

Power lines are shown Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, in Houston. More than 4 million people in Texas still had no power a full day after historic snowfall and single-digit temperatures created a surge of demand for electricity to warm up homes unaccustomed to such extreme lows, buckling the state's power grid and causing widespread blackouts.

Power lines in Houston. David J. Phillip/AP Photo

The Department of Energy calls its new draft report on transmission a vital step in confronting barriers to long-distance power lines, but not all U.S. grid operators are sold on the outlook.

DOE’s draft “National Transmission Needs Study,” released Friday, is the department’s initial view of where and how interstate power networks need to expand by the 2030s to carry three to four times the flow of wind and solar power on the grid today.

It also looks at how to prevent congested power lines from swelling consumers’ utility bills. And DOE has outlined another reason to support high-voltage towers and lines: keeping the lights on.


By increasing power-sharing capacity between regions, new lines can help defend against extreme weather assaults that are expected to get worse in the future, the study argues.

Yet grid organizations in two major regions — Texas and the Southeast — signaled they aren’t eager for closer ties. And PJM Interconnection LLC, which manages the grid in swaths of the mid-Atlantic and Midwest, said the analysis needs to be stronger if DOE hopes to use it to implement new transmission authority under the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law.

PJM “stands ready to assist the DOE in that effort,” the grid operator said in public comments attached to the new report. “However, in reviewing the draft, it is hard to find the specific analysis that supports the study’s findings — an issue that could provide grist for later legal challenges to the [Energy] Secretary’s actions that are being taken in reliance upon the study.”

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said during a webinar last year that “we need more transmission, period, to deliver this cleaner and cheaper and more reliable and resilient energy.”

According to the needs study, building larger interregional transmission lines would open channels for more power flows into stressed states in emergencies, preventing blackouts and enormous price spikes like those that wracked Texas and other central U.S. states during Winter Storm Uri in February 2021.

Doubling or tripling the current transmission system could cost up to several trillion dollars by midcentury as electrification of transportation and heating grows and old lines are replaced, according to research cited in the DOE study. DOE said it is also preparing a National Transmission Planning Study with a detailed cost-benefit analysis of grid expansion.

DOE is still working out how it will use $15.5 billion authorized for grid expansion and system strengthening by the bipartisan infrastructure law from 2021. The needs study is the first step in the strategy that will unfold this year, officials said.

“This study prescribes no particular solutions to issues faced by the Nation’s power sector,” last week’s report said. “Rather, it establishes findings of need in order for industry and the public to suggest best possible solutions.”

But the study pointedly endorses greater interregional grid ties, highlighting an energy policy issue with a long, controversial political history with more chapters about to be written (Greenwire, Feb. 24).

DOE’s Exhibit A is the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the grid operator in most of the state, which is largely isolated from neighboring states in part to avoid federal energy regulation.

“ERCOT has very limited interconnections with its neighbors. ERCOT can only import just over 1,000 [megawatts] over its ties to its neighbors,” the DOE study said.

When Uri struck two years ago, unprepared power and gas delivery infrastructure froze or failed to operate.

On the storm’s two worst days, ERCOT’s region had about 34,000 of generation capacity unavailable. At its peak in February 2021, ERCOT operators had to cut off around 20,000 MW of electricity to customers to prevent the power shortage from cascading into a long-duration blackout.

The needs study cites analysis by Michael Goggin, a vice president at Grid Strategies LLC, which advocates for grid expansion, concluding that each 1,000 MW of additional ties between Texas and the Southeast could have saved consumers nearly $1 billion during Uri, “while keeping the heat on for hundreds of thousands of Texans,” DOE said.

With those savings, a new line would quickly pay for itself, according to an earlier analysis by Grid Strategies.

With more transmission links among them, New England, New York and the mid-Atlantic region could have reduced energy charges by $30 million to $40 million during the “bomb cyclone” freeze of December 2017 to January 2018, the study said.

During a 2019 heat wave in Texas, an additional 1,000-MW transmission tie to the Southeast could have saved Texas consumers nearly $75 million, the report continued.

Goggin told a recent meeting of state utility commissioners that more transmission in the mid-Atlantic region would have eased the shock of Winter Storm Elliott over Christmas week in December.

Duke Energy Corp. and the Tennessee Valley Authority imposed rolling blackouts to manage an emergency power shortage when customer heating demand spiked as electricity generators failed. Duke Energy’s grid neighbor, the PJM Interconnection, was not forced to cut power, but it restricted exports to Duke because of its shortages, Goggin noted.

Cheaper power was available in the Midwest, New York and New England when Duke needed it, but there was not enough transmission to get it into PJM and then to Duke, according to Goggin.

FERC’s agenda

The report comes as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is considering requiring transfers of power among regional electric grids, particularly during extreme weather events.

Establishing a minimum amount of capacity that must be shared among regional grids is a stated priority for Willie Phillips, FERC’s acting chair, and some other members of the independent commission appear to be interested in the idea as well.

Gregory Wetstone, CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, said the DOE report should nudge FERC to continue looking into the issue and move forward with other new policies for the transmission system.

“It’s really a more comprehensive and authoritative overview that really reinforces concerns that have been out there for a while,” Wetstone said.

“Today’s grid is not ready for the challenges of the 21st century,” he added.

Greater connections among regional power grids would help integrate wind and solar farms and reduce dependence on fossil fuel power plants, DOE’s draft study said.

Major renewable energy resources tend to be located far away from major cities, so additional long-distance power lines could help deliver carbon-free power to where it’s most needed, it added.

As demand for electricity increases in the coming years, the greatest growth in power transfer capacity should occur between the Great Plains and Midwest, the Midwest and mid-Atlantic, and New York and New England, the study concluded. The document also touches on other issues being evaluated by FERC and considered priorities for renewable energy supporters — specifically, transmission planning and the grid connection process for new energy projects.

“This study provides a pretty authoritative documentation that we need better transmission planning and really to emphasize interregional transmission, for a variety of reasons that go to economics, resilience and pollution levels,” Wetstone said.

Open for comment

The draft is opens for public comment, with a final version to be issued later this year, according to Jeff Dennis, deputy director for transmission for DOE’s Grid Deployment Office.

The study was warmly welcomed by Chicago-based Invenergy LLC, developer of the proposed $7 billion Green Belt Express line that could help carry up to 5,000 MW of Great Plains wind power to Great Lakes and mid-Atlantic population centers.

A key 530-mile segment of the line, running from Kansas to central Missouri, is a candidate for a federal loan guarantee, according to DOE — one of the new or strengthened transmission initiatives provided for DOE in the infrastructure act (Energywire, Dec. 19, 2022).

“We are encouraged by the findings of the draft study which underscore the critical need for interregional transmission to deliver cost-effective generation, meet projected demand growth and usage shifts, and improve reliability and resilience, especially in the face of increasing extreme weather events, cybersecurity risks, and physical threats,” said Shashank Sane, Invenergy executive vice president for transmission, in a statement.

“The draft study rightly focuses on identifying market barriers to interregional transmission development to accelerate deployment of clean energy,” he added.

But the study has already brought criticism in its comments section.

A view from Texas was that closer interconnections could increase exposure to disruptions in neighboring grid systems, like a fast-moving disruption in January 2019 that arguably put the entire Eastern grid system “on the brink of a collapse,” ERCOT said.

At the time, an equipment failure at a Florida utility touched off an 18-minute grid disturbance that affected the eastern United States.

In its comments attached to the needs study, ERCOT said DOE hadn’t produced an adequate cost-benefit case for building additional lines into Texas.

“Without such an analysis, ERCOT questions whether the study can establish an independent economic ‘need,’” the Texas operator said.

Perhaps the sharpest pushback came from the Southeastern Regional Transmission Planning (SERTP) organization, a planning forum for utilities in the region.

Clean energy advocates in the region say the utilities are moving too slowly to zero-carbon generation. The power connections between the Southeast and Great Plains wind resources and PJM are among the weakest nationwide.

SERTP said building more transmission links could allow some regions to “lean on” their neighbors, shirking their own power supply responsibilities.

It contended that DOE has greatly expanded traditional transmission policy that could lead to unlawful federal intrusion on state energy authority.

DOE’s Dennis said the department is looking for feedback for the final report.

“We want public comments on the draft conclusions, on all aspects of the report, to better inform the final product,” he told E&E News.

Reporter Jeffrey Tomich contributed.