It may be too late for Biden’s grid expansion

By Peter Behr | 03/15/2024 06:56 AM EDT

The lengthy rollout of national electricity corridors by the Department of Energy faces the prospect of a Trump presidency.

DOE sign and transmission towers

Francis Chung/POLITICO (DOE); Eduardo Sanchez/Wikipedia (transmission lines)

The Department of Energy plans to create electricity corridors that could double the size of the high-voltage power grid needed to ship more clean energy across the country.

The catch: To get the full strategy for expanding transmission in place, or even close to enabling a major private-sector investment, President Joe Biden needs a second term — a hardening reality as former President Donald Trump clinches the Republican nomination.

The lengthy rollout of the Biden administration’s electric transmission strategy adds up to a political gamble.


“They needed to get in front on this issue a bit more,” said James Hoecker, former chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and a longtime advocate for expanding the power grid.

Trump has hammered at Biden’s energy and climate goals, and in his first term, Trump’s DOE put transmission planning efforts on the back burner.

By the general election Nov. 5, almost three years will have passed since Biden signed the bipartisan infrastructure law, which authorized the department to designate broad transmission corridors and use federal loan guarantees and other support to entice developers to propose big, expensive power line projects.

DOE plans to unveil its corridor proposal this spring. The agency will hear public comment and make final decisions close to the end of the year.

Exact routes inside the federal corridors will be left for utilities, grid operators and energy project developers to plan. In its most powerful and provocative provision, the infrastructure law allows projects to be sited with federal approval — over state and local opposition if necessary.

Federal electricity corridors represent one of the administration’s most powerful tools for spurring a clean energy boom. High-voltage, long-distance lines are needed to deliver more wind and solar power to big cities. Expansions and upgrades are also needed to unclog parts of the aging grid. Data centers, new factories and the rise of electric cars are pushing up demand in the Southeast, Midwest and West.

“We obviously need more, more, more transmission to run on 100 percent clean energy,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in February 2022 as the department started building a strategy for using its expanded authority.

Analysts have also documented the need for a larger, stronger grid to lower electricity rates and defend against extreme weather emergencies.

It is no secret where the corridors will generally run. DOE’s National Transmission Needs Study identified areas of the United States where more transmission capacity would introduce competition from lower-cost generation, benefiting consumers. A bigger grid could move more outside power into regions devastated by natural disasters. That was evident when the Texas grid was devastated by a winter storm in 2021 and when a cold snap over Christmas 2022 triggered blackouts and shut off natural gas deliveries across the eastern United States.

Preliminary maps prepared for DOE’s National Transmission Planning Study propose high-voltage direct current lines that would tie regions with a lot of wind and solar power to metropolitan areas, helping to make the Biden clean energy goals a reality. The study, due out later this year, is an enormous computer calculation of how power would move around the U.S. in a much larger, greener grid.

Looking for allies

Instead of a sprint to open corridors for new big wires projects, DOE’s strategy is to build coalitions of state and local officials, electric utilities and project developers that say they want to build out the grid.

“We need to have deep engagement with the public and the industry as a whole,” said Hamody Hindi, a Bonneville Power Administration planning engineer assisting DOE on its grid strategy, speaking during a DOE webinar last year.

“By getting buy-in from all the right folks we can then catalyze the building of these high-volume interregional transmission [lines],” he said. “And so we’ve put a lot of energy into engaging a broad range of groups across the energy sector, as well as the public at large.”

Gretchen Kershaw, senior transmission advisor in DOE’s Grid Deployment Office, told state regulators last month that preliminary corridor designations this spring will be followed by a “full, deeper review and public engagement.”

“We really hope to see the states come in,” added Jeff Dennis, deputy director for transmission at the Grid Deployment Office.

The corridors program will be “applicant-driven,” the office’s director, Maria Robinson, has stressed. They’ll be tied to what utilities and transmission developers are already planning.

Hoecker, the former FERC chair, is general counsel of the Rail Electrification Council, part of a coalition that has been urging DOE to immediately designate parts of the 92,000 miles of freight railroad line and the 160,000-mile highway system as preferred pathways for new, high-priority power line projects.

Using transportation rights-of-way for grid expansions would streamline siting and permitting of big wires projects, according to the council and NextGen Highways, a project of the Minneapolis-based Great Plains Institute.

Grid Strategies, a research and consulting group, has identified 10 big transmission projects that have made it to construction during the Biden administration after years waiting for permits, aided by a push by White House officials. But that’s only a start, says Grid Strategies founder Rob Gramlich. “The federal dollars for new transmission lines weren’t very much,” Gramlich said, and congressional Republicans aren’t offering more.

That makes accelerating the Biden strategy all the more critical, Gramlich said. “Whatever authorities do exist really need to be used,” he added.

From R&D to deployment

Transmission pioneer Michael Skelly, founder of Grid United, a Houston-based developer of wires projects in the northern Great Plains and Sun Belt regions, noted the Biden administration’s progress.

The department last year committed $1.3 billion to purchase power from three new projects by independent “merchant” developers. Backed by private investors, the developers cannot roll the costs of projects into regulated consumer rates, as utilities can. DOE eases financing risks by acting as an “anchor” tenant.

One of those grants went to Skelly’s Southline project, a line that will take power from New Mexico to fast-growing Phoenix and central Arizona.

“Obviously they’re operating under all kinds of constraints,” Skelly said in an interview, citing DOE’s exacting contracting rules. But the department is undergoing an important transformation, he added. “They went from being more of an R&D [research and development] agency to actual deployment. You go from studying things to moving money to make projects happen, and then getting money out the door.” Under three years isn’t slow on that scale, he said.

Skelly would not discuss how his company might respond to DOE’s corridors program. One of its projects would connect the United States’ eastern and western grid systems — divided by the Rocky Mountains — and that could be a prime contender for corridor designation, some grid experts believe.

DOE is now working on a second round of purchase contracts, totaling $1.2 billion. Last October, it announced $3.46 billion in awards under the Grid Resilience and Innovation Partnerships (GRIP) Program for 58 projects across 44 states to strengthen grid infrastructure. It hopes to award another $3.9 billion for GRIP projects in the next two fiscal years.

By itself, DOE can’t take Great Plains wind power or Southwest solar power into population centers in California or the Midwest, Biden officials stress. It needs allies around the country. That was driven home this month when a planned power line connecting Canada’s hydroelectric plants in Quebec province and New England was canceled by its developer National Grid for lack of public support.

The insistence by state officials and regulators on their right to approve projects within their boundaries was drummed into the record last month in the final meeting of the Joint Federal-State Task Force on Electric Transmission, formed by FERC and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners to get more cooperation on power lines.

Several task force members noted that the corridors process could help overcome political roadblocks on long-range projects crossing multiple states. Others advised DOE to move carefully.

Andrew French, chair of the Kansas Corporation Commission — the top regulator in a state with strong wind energy resources — warned “siting infrastructure is becoming increasingly less palatable to landowners and much more politically polarizing.”

“There may need to be some intense conversations about whether reliability and the economic development benefits of new transmission in resource-rich areas, like where I live,” French said, “are an acceptable trade-off for the use of the land to site transmission.”